ELLSWORTH — U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) have introduced legislation in Congress that would make it easier for seafood dealers to export sea urchins.
Recently, federal officials started requiring inspections of urchins both entering and leaving the United States. Currently, processors buy urchins harvested both in Maine and in Canada and process them in Maine facilities. Urchins from Canada are inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when coming into the state. After they are processed, all urchins — regardless of where they were harvested — are again inspected before being exported. Almost all processed urchins are sold to markets in Japan.
The sea urchin fishery, while just a shadow of what it was two decades ago, is still important in Maine.
According to figures compiled by the Department of Marine Resources, last year, some 204 Maine harvesters — most of them divers — landed some 1.99 million pounds of green sea urchins worth about $5.4 million or $2.71 per pound — 20 cents less than the record price of $2.91 paid in 2013.
In 1993, urchin landings reached a record 41.6 million pounds worth about $26.8 million.
A year later, landings of about 34.3 million pounds had a record landed value of more than $35.6 million, but the average price was just $1.04 per pound.
Maine currently has 317 licensed urchin harvesters: 156 divers, 139 draggers, 10 rakers and 12 tribal harvesters — primarily draggers. Entry to the fishery was frozen in 2004 and no licenses have been issued since then.
The state’s urchin fishery is divided into two zones, basically east and west of Penoboscot Bay. In 2013, DMR imposed a seven-tray (about 640 pounds) daily limit in Zone 2 — the eastern part of the state. Last year, the department set a 12-tray (about 1,050 pounds) limit for Zone 1 — from the New Hampshire border to western Penobscot Bay.
The fishing season — which runs from early fall to late winter — is just 15 days long in Zone 1 and 38 days long in Zone 2.
Virtually all of the sea urchins harvested in Maine are destined for export — but not as whole animals. The valuable part of the animal is the roe, which is removed and packed for shipment to Japan at one of the state’s five licensed processors. Most of them are located in Portland or Scarborough, although there is at least one processor Downeast.
By and large, according to DMR, the price harvesters are paid for their urchins is dependent on their estimated roe yield. That is generally determined at dockside where the licensed buyers — there are currently 11 statewide — will crack open a random sample from a harvester’s landings.
Minimum acceptable yield is 8 percent of body weight. Yields of 10 to 12 percent are considered good, according to DMR reports.
“The inspection process of getting this highly perishable seafood out of the country has been very difficult for urchin dealers,” Pingree said in a statement. “Sometimes the urchins end up sitting in a hot warehouse for days waiting for an inspection and this has resulted in the loss of a very valuable product. There is an exemption in place already for shellfish and I think it should be extended to include urchins.”
“The urchin industry employs more than 600 hardworking and dedicated Mainers,” Poliquin said. “This legislation will root out overly burdensome and unnecessary regulations by the federal government to ensure this industry continues to thrive and help protect these Maine jobs.”
The current exemption from inspection dates back to the 1980s and applies only to shellfish. Urchins are echinoderms rather than shellfish, but only recently did federal officials start requiring U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspections.
The bill offered by Pingree and Poliquin would revoke the exemption for urchins if they were declared as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act and does not apply to any urchins harvested illegally.