ELLSWORTH — Things are looking up in Maine’s sea urchin fishery, but choosing the dates for the upcoming 2017-2018 fishing season remains contentious.
According to preliminary figures compiled by the Department of Marine Resources, the 2016-2017 season that ended in March was the best in more than a decade. With 199 active harvesters reporting landings, dragger fishermen and divers landed 2,089,888 pounds of green sea urchins valued at $6,848,301. The last time landed value topped $6 million was in 2003.
The average price at the dock, $3.29 per pound, set a new industry record.
Though the news was good, last season’s returns paled when compared with historic numbers. In 1993, Maine harvesters landed more than 41.6 million pounds of urchins worth some $26.8 million. In 1995, a 34-million-pound fishery was worth more than $35.6 million.
Last Wednesday, the DMR held a public hearing in Ellsworth on a series of proposed rules aimed at setting the dates for the upcoming season, adopting the limited use of magnetic swipe cards in the urchin fishery and establishing an experimental urchin fishery in a section of Blue Hill Bay. As always, setting the season was complicated by the need to accommodate two different groups: draggers, who tow gear across the bottom to harvest urchins; and harvesters, who collect urchins by diving, raking or using traps.
Another complicating factor this year was the approval in March by the Sea Urchin Zone Council of calendars favored by Maine urchin buyers and processors. Most of the processors are located in the Portland area and, according to DMR Resource Manager Trisha Cheney, don’t want to send buyers to remote Downeast harbors more than three days per week – ideally three days in a row.
For waters east of Penobscot Bay (Zone 2), DMR has proposed two 45-day seasons – early or late – for divers, rakers and trappers and a single 45-day season for draggers. Fishermen would be able to choose 38 fishing days – the same number as last season – that would be tracked using swipe cards in a pilot program. In Whiting and Dennys bays far Downeast, all harvesters would be allowed to fish 15 days, six more than this past season.
There were few, if any, divers at last week’s meeting, so the focus was largely on the draggers’ dissatisfaction with DMR’s proposal.
Of the 45 fishing days open to dragging in a season stretching between Oct. 23 and March 15, four come in the last two weeks of October, 13 are scheduled for November and five are in March. That schedule doesn’t work, several harvesters said.
Larry Wood, a dragger from Machiasport, said the March days should be moved to October. By March, he said, the urchins “are all spawned out. There’s no money there.”
Unlike their colleagues in most other fisheries, while urchin harvesters sell an entire animal, it is the weight of the roe – the ripe internal eggs in the urchin’s ovaries – that determines the price.
Several other fishermen agreed that moving days from March to earlier in the season would work better for them, but James Ackley of Machias, a former zone council member, raised a different problem. In eastern Maine, lobstering continues well into the fall, and thousands of lobster traps are still in the water Downeast.
“There’s no way that can work,” he said about dragging during October and November. “There’s no way you can put a drag in the water without getting phone calls.”
Tony Wood, a Machiasport fisherman, told the hearing audience, “If you try to fish those early days around Cutler or Machiasport, there’d be a war.”
Another consideration in establishing open days for draggers, according to both Ackley and Deer Isle harvester Paul Gray, is that many fishermen drag for both scallops and urchins. The proposed calendar, which allows for scalloping on Monday and Tuesday and harvesting urchins Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – as the processors proposed – works well for fishermen.
According to Cheney, the Legislature has enacted a new law that will permit fishermen to have both scallop drags and urchin drags on their boats at the same time as long as they only have one of those species onboard. Currently, harvesters engaged in both fisheries on the same day have to swap drags, a potentially dangerous maneuver in bad weather.
Several fishermen said that one problem with the Zone 2 calendars suggested by the DMR, according to several fishermen, is that there were almost no draggers present at the March meeting of the Zone Council that approved dates that were favored by processors and divers.
“What I see in that meeting,” Ackley said, is that “the divers set us back 20 years” in terms of cooperation between competing segments of the fishery. “You’ve got to work together. If you don’t,” he said, “we’re sunk.”
The DMR will accept written comments on the proposed calendars and other rules until the close of business on Monday, June 12.