ELLSWORTH — Some Maine fishermen are asking themselves whether it is still worth it to endure bitter-cold winds and heavy seas to harvest sea urchins for their prized roe at this point in the 2020-21 season that began Sept. 1.
At the Atlantic Coast Inn, where some out-of-town sea urchin harvesters stay several nights a week while working out of various Hancock County harbors, multiple harvesters reported that the Maine fishery’s further restricted daily catch, fewer allotted fishing days, declining dealer prices, warmer ocean temps and the coronavirus-driven drop in demand for the sea urchins’ gonads — called uni in Japanese — are taking a toll on their livelihood. Working in high winds and frigid temps, incurring fuel costs driving to ports and back home, the experienced divers said it was becoming increasingly less profitable.
At the High Street hotel last week, after workdays beginning before dawn, pickup trucks swung into the parking lot to unload totes packed with green urchins. Hailing from Woolwich to Harrington, the crews trickled in and backed up to East Atlantic Seafood Trading’s truck to sell their day’s catch to Sinuon Chau. Chau is the second generation in his family to run the Scarborough-based company founded by his father, John Chau, in the early 1990s.
Standing in the truck bed, Sinuon Chau surveyed diver Fred Gray’s catch. He cracked open some urchins to eyeball the uni — the reproductive glands — which produce eggs or sperm depending on the gender. Inside the shells, urchins contain two to five gonads. The lobes, ranging in color from pale yellow to dark orange, resemble small tongues in shape and texture. Top-grade uni is plump, firm and a bright golden or yellow-orange hue. That is the quality sought by chefs in the United States and the world’s top consumer, Japan. The delicacy is served raw atop sushi, sashimi or, say, a quail’s egg yolk.
“Water is warmer and the percentage of the roe [uni] is down,” urchin diver Fred Day lamented as Chau eyed the harvester’s six trays of urchins each holding roughly 90 pounds. Day wound up being paid $3 per pound. Part of his earnings went to the boat tender captain, Tim Peterson, and deckhand Clint Colson. All three have other jobs as their main source of income. “They [urchins] are not as full as they used to be.”
Chau agrees. Aged 37, he grew up in the 1990s, experiencing Maine’s sea urchin boom years when the fishery’s licensed divers and draggers totaled over 2,700 compared to just 237 coastwide this fishing season. He says East Atlantic only buys sea urchins — no other seafood — which are supplied by both Maine and Canadian harvesters. In Scarborough, the family-run business has a processing plant, where raw uni is carefully extracted from the shell and shipped overnight to Japan and around the United States.
“It’s a dying business,” said Chau, who has seen a decline in the volume and quality of uni over the years. Until they were cracked open, he didn’t know how much he would make from the 130 trays purchased that day. “I don’t know if I am going to make a profit.”
Maggie Hunter, the Department of Marine Resources’ fisheries biologist who has tracked sea urchins for over 20 years, says Maine’s wild sea urchin population never rebounded after 1994 when the state agency established two zones to manage the lucrative resource and open and closed seasons were established. In coastal Maine, Zone I extends from Portland east to Penobscot Bay while Zone II stretches from Penobscot Bay east to the Canadian border. No new licenses have been issued to divers or draggers since 2004.
DMR’s annual dive surveys show the state’s urchin population has steadily declined over the past 20 years. In turn, the state’s annual urchin harvest has dropped from 2.14 million pounds in the 2017-18 season to 1.48 million pounds in 2019-20 — a 23 percent reduction. This season, which ends in mid-March, preliminary landings thus far suggest the catch is 24 percent lower than last year. Harvester attrition, reduced demand for uni due to the pandemic and warmer water may be contributing factors.
“Green urchins are a northern, cold-loving animal. It’s what makes it [the uni] taste so good,” Hunter noted this week, responding to the harvesters’ observations about warmer water. “It makes sense. The roe is ripening. It is a metabolic process.”
The elephant in the room, though, is the urchins’ failure to recover despite state regulators’ license freeze and continued reduction in the harvesters’ fishing days, which were reduced from 38 to 30 this year. The daily harvest also was cut from seven to six trays per harvester.
Once dominant in the Maine Coast’s rocky, subtidal zone, urchins were severely overfished back in the 1990s. The then-prolific creatures were voracious grazers, mowing down wide swaths of kelp, leaving behind patches of pink and rose-crusted rocky bottom. These corraline barrens were the urchins’ nursery grounds where their larvae settled. In time, kelp beds rebounded providing cover for rock crabs and other predators that consumed the juvenile urchins.
“Because urchins are important grazers, if they are removed from an area, the algal habitat quickly returns,” Hunter observed. “In some places, however, the kelp that was there has been replaced by Irish moss, invasive species (such as Codium) and other species that urchin don’t prefer, but which harbor predators that consume baby urchins. In some places, the kelp or mixed species return but also harbor predators. Scientists call these algal habitats that are inhospitable to urchins an ‘alternate stable state’ and much of the Maine coast is now in this state.”
West Bath builder Tom Reno has faced icy roads, frigid water and high winds to harvest sea urchins every winter for nearly 30 years.
“If we’re left to it [fishing], we are too tenacious,” Reno summed up last week. “We’ve had a good run. It has been a good industry.”