While some fisheries are in their quiet period for the year, others are at their peak. You have to be a little bit adventurous if you want to expand your palate to include species beyond lobster and scallops (not that I ever get tired of those). Another favorite that I didn’t discover until living overseas but is harvested along the Maine coast is sea urchin. This prickly creature doesn’t look very appetizing, but its daunting outside protects a delicacy inside: its golden colored reproductive organs. These are sometimes mistakenly called “roe,” but they are actually the ovaries or testicles, collectively known as uni in places like Japan, where they are most popular. However, there is a growing awareness of their tasty flavor here in Maine where they are harvested.

The green sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, lives on Maine’s rocky seafloor, and scrapes off algae with its rough mouthparts known as Aristotle’s lantern. This complicated mouth consists of five sharp, teeth-like structures that can move independently to scrape off crusty algae. The five mouth parts are found at the bottom of a five-part shell, also known as a test, that is covered by spines. They move around by an amazing hydraulic system that pumps water in and out of their long, tubed feet that suction to surfaces and pull them along. These “feet” can also sense light and dark, acting like more than 1,000 long-waving “eyeballs.”

Maine’s urchin season is underway. SoPo Seafood typically receives its first sushi-grade uni, like the case shown here, at the start of the season in September. Photo contributed by SoPo Seafood

Most Maine urchin harvesters collect them by hand while SCUBA diving. This minimizes the impact on the seafloor and allows them to pick the very best ones and those that are within the legal size limits. However, some urchins are also collected using a small drag net. The season for urchin harvesting is from September through March, with the peak being right now — the winter. These fisheries are closed during the summer in order to allow the urchins to reproduce. In addition to size limits, the Maine Department of Marine Resources sets limitations on the number of permits that are issued and also limits on the number of days that they can be harvested in each of two zones that divide the Maine coast.

Maine’s urchin population has seen its ups and downs in the recent past. Peaking in the early 1990s with a harvest approaching 40 million pounds and supporting 2,700 harvesters, the landings saw a 90% decline between 1986 and 2001. Now, the harvest is closer to 3 million pounds and includes around 200 harvesters. The decline is attributed to overfishing, but the slow recovery is more complicated to explain given the strict restrictions enacted following the decline. The gist of the theory is that when cod populations crashed, urchin populations went up. Then, with overfishing, urchin populations declined and the kelp that they feed on came back. That kelp then provided shelter for predators like crab and lobster that have since kept the urchin population from recovering to its previous levels.

Still, you can find Maine urchin uni locally, and it is delicious. However, getting the delicate uni out of their thorny shells is, as you could imagine, not easy. The urchins have to be cut by hand and the uni carefully removed to preserve its quality in the sushi market.

Then the question is, what do you do with it? Uni has a buttery flavor that you can use much like butter on toast or you can use it to top pasta, just to mention a couple of simple ideas. If you want to give it a try, SoPo Seafood in South Portland is a great place to buy fresh Maine uni and they have extensive information about how it is harvested and processed including a great video on their website at soposeafood.com. Locally, Fishermen’s Net on Bath Road also sells uni and you can find recipe ideas on their blog at mualobster.com.

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