Poliquin, Pingree help urchins get a pass



ELLSWORTH — U.S. Reps. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) have reintroduced their bill to make it easier for Maine seafood dealers to export sea urchins and sea cucumbers outside of the United States.

The bill puts an end to repetitive, mandatory inspections of urchins and sea cucumbers being exported from the country, which cause the highly perishable products to be held in warehouses for prolonged periods and spoil.

Last year, the Department of Marine Resources issued 301 licenses to harvest sea urchins. Of those, 244 allowed fishing — either by diving, dragging or hand raking — east of Penobscot Bay. DMR also issued licenses to five processors, virtually all of them located in the Portland area.

Currently, processors buy urchins harvested in both Maine and Canada and process them in Maine. Urchins from Canada are inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they are imported. 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 Asia.

“Sea urchin roe is a critical Maine seafood export, bringing $25 million annually into the state’s economy and employing 650 Mainers across the state,” Pingree said in a statement. “This highly perishable product has a shelf life of only one week, and since much of it heads to Japan, any delay can lead to a loss of product and money.”

Shipping delays while awaiting inspection put urchin roe at risk of rotting in hot warehouses, according to Pingree.

“Other seafood exports, such as lobster, are already exempt from these rules,” she said. “Ensuring fair treatment for this significant Maine industry is important for the diversity of our marine economy and sustainability of our coastal communities.”

Poliquin represents the area of the state where the bulk of Maine’s sea urchin harvest occurs.

“Diving for, harvesting and processing urchins and cucumbers is an especially difficult task, and there is only a limited amount of time each year for these workers to do it,” Poliquin said. “There’s no reason the federal government should get in the way of our Maine businesses with costly and unnecessary regulations, putting in jeopardy the hundreds of jobs the industry supports.”

The exemption from federal inspection for shellfish dates back to the 1980s. Technically, urchins are echinoderms, but federal officials only recently began to require the USF&W inspections.

The bill would revoke the inspection exemption if urchins were declared to be endangered and does not apply to any urchins harvested illegally.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. srappaport@ellsworthamerican.com