ELLSWORTH, Maine — Having weathered years of tight fishing restrictions on the state’s sea urchin industry, fishermen are expected to face even tighter harvesting limits next year in eastern Maine.
Exactly what additional restrictions will be put in place is unknown, but officials with the Maine Department of Marine Resources are seeking feedback from Maine fishermen to see if some measures might be more palatable than others.
Along the western half of the coastline, where sea urchin restrictions have been more severe, things are looking up, however. From the western shore of Penobscot Bay to the New Hampshire border, DMR is proposing to increase the total number of urchin fishing days for the year from 10 to 15.
According to Trisha Cheney de Graaf, resource coordinator for DMR, urchin fishermen in eastern Maine have been limited to 45 days a year since 2004 because of poor stock assessments. In the early 1990s, after demand for urchin roe in Japan created a boom for Maine’s urchin industry, fishermen had been allowed to harvest urchins 180 days each year.
The annual yield of Maine’s urchin fishery peaked in 1993, when divers and draggers brought more than 41 million pounds of the spiky creatures ashore, according to DMR statistics. The value of the fishery hit its zenith two year later, when fishermen earned a fleetwide total of $35.6 million for the 34 million total pounds of urchins they harvested.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, landings fell off sharply and have remained under 4 million pounds every year since 2005. Last year, only 2.2 million pounds of urchins worth a total of $4.5 million were harvested in Maine.
De Graaf said Monday night that scientific staff at DMR is concerned Maine’s coastal urchin population is still in decline and recently recommended a 50 percent cut in the harvest. DMR administrators think a 50 percent cut would be too harsh, she said, and so have come up with measures that could reduce the harvest between 22 and 33 percent.
One option being considered is keeping the number of fishing days in Zone 2, which extends from mid-Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border, to 45 days but adding a daily allowable catch of 10 totes, each of which is about the size of a recycling bin and generally holds about 80 pounds. Another Zone 2 option being considered is reducing the number of days to 36 but not imposing a daily catch limit.
In both of these scenarios, divers would have to limit the number of undersized urchins they bring to the surface, which many divers say they do already. Divers cull their catch by sorting them by hand on the bottom. Draggers would be allowed to have a certain percentages of undersized urchins among their catch, depending on whether they had culled through the pile when inspected by Marine Patrol, the law enforcement division of DMR.
Fishermen can only keep urchins that have a shell between two and one-sixteenth inches and three inches in diameter.
Culling urchins for size on the bottom instead of bringing them to the surface and then dumping undersized urchins back overboard helps minimize mortality, de Graaf said, because urchins can die if exposed to subzero temperatures above the surface or if they are dumped back overboard in water deeper than where they were caught. “They’re really finicky animals,” de Graaf said.
A third option for Zone 2, she said, is to set a 30-day fishing season without a daily catch limit or requiring culling on the bottom. This option is the least palatable, both for fishermen and the department, she added.
Fifteen fishermen attended a public hearing Monday night at Ellsworth City Hall to weigh in on the options. The vast majority seemed to support the option of fishing for 45 days but limiting the daily catch and requiring divers to cull their catch on bottom.
Jeremy Card, a diver from Franklin, said he would rather have a daily limit so that he might have more consistent catches throughout the fishing season.
“I can’t stress enough — we can’t lose any more days in any of our fisheries,” Card said. “I’d rather see nice, steady fishing so I can know what I’m going to [earn].”
Byron Matthews of Lubec and other draggers at the meeting said they could support a 45-day season and a daily catch limit as long as it wasn’t less than 1,000 pounds per day, or 100 pounds per tote. Milton Chute, a dragger who also lives in Lubec, was the only one at the meeting who said he would prefer a 36-day season without a daily catch limit.
DMR plans to hold another public hearing on the proposal at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, at the Portland office of ferry company Casco Bay Lines. Written comments on the options will be accepted through Monday, June 18, and can be sent to: Department of Marine Resources, attn. K. Rousseau, 21 State House Station, Augusta ME 04333-0021. Comments also can be emailed to email@example.com.
DMR’s advisory council is expected to meet in Augusta on July 11 to decide which option to recommend.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.