WINTER HARBOR — Tucked up inside Schoodic Point, Winter Harbor is a busy port for green sea urchin harvesters, but it is just one Maine harbor that enjoyed a successful winter fishing season.
Late last month, the Department of Marine Resources announced preliminary landings figures from 2017-2018 fishing season at a meeting of the Sea Urchin Zone Council in Bangor. The news was good.
While the numbers remain subject to revision, landings for the just-ended season were higher than they were compared with 2016-2017, but the price paid to harvesters was down.
According to DMR biologist Margaret Hunter, total urchin landings were 2,131,921 pounds with an estimated value of $6.4 million, an average price of $2.99 per pound for the season.
Landings for the 2016-2017 season were just 2,091,533 pounds, but with an average price of $3.28 per pound the landed value of the catch was approximately $6.8 million.
The season-to-season decline notwithstanding, the landed value of the harvest for the season just ended was still the second highest since the 2003-2004 season.
At 302, the number of licensed harvesters remained more or less constant compared with the past few seasons but it has shown a steady decline.
A decade ago, there were 459 licensed urchin harvesters. At the peak of the fishery in 1994, the number stood at 2,725, including 1,725 divers.
Last season, while the number of licenses was split evenly between divers and draggers, the distribution of the 187 “active” harvesters, those who fished at least two days during the season, was not.
In Zone 1, basically west of Penobscot Bay, 28 of the 33 active harvesters were divers.
In Zone 2, however, between Penobscot Bay and the Canadian border, there were 78 divers and 76 draggers. Divers landed 1,041,738 pounds of urchins while the draggers landed 817,897 pounds.
Sea urchins are collected for their roe, or gonads, called “uni.” Some of the urchin landings are processed in Maine, but the bulk of the harvest is shipped live to Japan for processing.
The price harvesters get for their urchins depends on the amount of roe in the animals. Buyers at wharfs along the coast crack open samples from each harvester’s catch to determine the “roe index” by weight .
Last season, the roe indices were generally higher at 12.6 percent than in 2016-2017. The roe index for both diver and dragger-harvested urchins was markedly higher in the eastern Zone 2 waters than in Zone 1.
In Maine, urchin fishing is allowed between early September and late March, with harvesters allowed to choose between “early” and “late” seasons, 20 days long in Zone 1, 45 days long in Zone 2, with slightly different dates in each zone.
Once harvesters choose their season they are allowed to pick which “open” days they fish, with a limit of 15 days in Zone 1 and 38 days in Zone 2. The seasons differ slightly in each zones.
According to DMR, allowing harvesters to pick the days they fished didn’t increase the average number of actual fishing days per harvester in the western part of the state. In eastern waters, though, the average days fished increased from 18 over the three previous seasons to 21 in 2017-2018.
The Sea Urchin Zone Council also passed on 10 calendars for the coming 2018-2019 season that will be submitted to DMR for final approval.
The proposed calendar for Zone 1 would allow divers to fish 20 days rather than 15, but impose a daily limit of nine “totes” of urchins. The current limit is 12, so the number of totes allowed during the entire season would not change.
A standard tote holds approximately 90 pounds of urchins.