December 28, 2011

Maine tries to rebuild urchin industry

Proponents seek to reinvigorate the sea urchin industry and keep it sustainable.

By CLARKE CANFIELD The Associated Press

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At a processing plant in Portland last week, a sea urchin is split open to reveal the bright orange roe. During the peak years of the mid-1990s, the harvest topped 30 million pounds a year for three years in a row, with a peak of 42 million pounds. By 2010, the harvest had dwindled to just 2.6 million pounds, the smallest yield since 1987.

Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

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At the peak, a lot of people got into the fishery to make a fast buck before moving on. Those that remain are in it for the long haul, said Joe Leask, a longtime urchin diver from Bath.

The industry is at a crossroads and a fishery management plan is one step in ensuring its longterm viability, he said.

"I'd like to see it be a big industry," Leask said. "The only limitation on how big it can be is Japan and how much roe it wants. I'd like to see it grow, and to make it grow I think these steps need to be taken now."

The owner of the state's largest urchin processing company said the urchin population has been showing signs of improvement, due primarily to the minimum size requirement that forces divers to leave baby urchins on the ocean bottom. The size of the harvest now, though, is as much a function of the marketplace as it is the size of the urchin resource, said Atchan Tamaki, owner of ISF trading in Portland.

"The market is quite a bit downsized in Japan because of the bad economy and the tsunami," Tamaki said. "The amount of the harvest right now is matching the demand."


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