ELLSWORTH, Maine — At the urging of fishermen who dive for urchins to the west of Penobscot Bay, the advisory Sea Urchin Zone Council is recommending to state officials that those fishermen be given twice as many days to fish as they got this past year.
Due to previous overfishing, the number of urchins harvested annually in Maine remains at the lowest levels they have been over the last 25 years, resulting in a limited number of authorized fishing days. In 2010, an estimated 2.2 million pounds of urchins were caught in Maine, down from an all-time high of 41 million pounds in 1993. The estimated overall value to fishermen of the 2010 urchin landings in Maine was $4.5 million, according to official Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics.
Because of the decline, fishermen in urchin Zone 1, which includes the western side of Penobscot Bay and everything between it and the New Hampshire border, recently have been limited to only 10 days of harvesting urchins each year. Fishermen in Zone 2, which includes the eastern side of Penobscot Bay and the coast east to the Canadian border, have been allowed to fish for 45 days because the estimated urchin population is higher.
“It’s in a little better condition, but we are watching it closely,” Linda Mercer, director of DMR’s bureau of resource management, said Friday about the Zone 2 fishery.
Meeting on Thursday night in Ellsworth, the Sea Urchin Zone Council decided divers in Zone 1 should be able to fish for 20 total days this fall and early winter. Brian Soper, a Harpswell fisherman who sits on the council, said the number of urchin fishing days allowed in Zone 1 should be more than 10 because there aren’t enough active fishermen in Zone 1 to deplete the urchins there. Besides, he added, several Zone 1 fishermen insist that last year they saw higher numbers of urchins where they fish than they did in prior years.
“There’s not enough of us out there to damage the resource,” Soper told his fellow council members. “We’re in a standoff here. I say one thing, [DMR officials] say another.”
According to Maggie Hunter of DMR, 72 fishermen are licensed to fish for urchins in Zone 1, but only 37 of them actively fished last fall and winter. Of those 37, she said Friday, 33 are divers and four are draggers. DMR requires Zone 1 urchin fishermen to file harvest reports, which then are matched up with required reports from dealers, so state officials can keep track of how many fishermen are out there and what quantity of urchins are being harvested. Harvest reports are not required for Zone 2 fishermen, but DMR does collect dealer reports for that area, she said.
Hunter and Mercer both were at Thursday’s zone council meeting, as were about 15 fishermen, to talk about the proposed fishing dates with council members. Hunter and Mercer each said that, in their opinion, the DMR’s estimates for urchins in Zone 1 don’t warrant an increase in the number of fishing days allowed.
“We’re not seeing any recovery,” Mercer said.
Mercer said Friday that DMR Commissioner Norman Olsen will have the final say over the dates for the 2011-2012 urchin season, including whether Zone 1 urchin divers will be allowed to fish for 20 days. Olsen could make the decision as early as next week, she said, but she is not sure when he will set the final dates.
The dates recommended for both zones by the council on Thursday closely resemble the urchin fishing dates allowed in Maine this past fall and winter. Last year, urchin divers in Zone 1 were allowed to fish for 10 days spread out over the last three weeks of September or for 10 days spread out over the last three weeks of December.
Because of potential conflicts with other types of seasonal fishing gear, state law prohibits urchin dragging before Oct. 1 each fall. Because of the ban, any decision to allow Zone 1 fishermen to harvest urchins during both September and December would apply only to divers.