Elvers, the spaghetti-thin transparent juvenile American eels, may be the most sought-after commercial marine species in Maine right now, but they are not the first to rocket to prominence due to demand in the Far East.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was sea urchins. The round, spiny, baseball-sized creatures are treasured in Japan and neighboring countries for their roe, which is considered a seafood delicacy. But in the late 1980s local stocks in the western Pacific Ocean began to wane. That’s when Asian seafood dealers discovered that Maine had plenty.

Landings for Maine urchins, long considered a nuisance by lobstermen, soared at a time when few restrictions on urchin harvesting were in place. In less than 10 years, the statewide volume of urchin landings exploded from 1.4 million pounds to more than 41 million pounds.

The boom, however, turned into a bust. The annual value of Maine’s urchin landings went from $236,000 in 1987 to more than $35 million in 1995, but declined quickly again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Last year, when the average annual price was $2.63 per pound, urchin fishermen statewide earned less than $5 million for their catch and, for the first time since 1987, caught less than 2 million pounds.

Now that a spike in Asian demand for eels has elvers fetching top dollar — around $2,000 per pound this spring, as opposed to $185 per pound three years ago — some are wondering if Maine’s elver fishery will go the way of the urchins.

But others who had a front row seat to the urchin gold rush of the late 1980s and early 1990s say the regulatory situation with elvers is very different. Unlike the urchin fishery, American eels make up a multistate fishery and so are regulated by federal law. And unlike urchins, strict conservation measures for elvers had been in place for many years before the price exploded.

Bill Sutter, a Wiscasset resident who has dragged for urchins since the 1960s, said Thursday that federal regulators likely will impose tighter restrictions on American eel harvests before catches start declining. Annual catches of elvers in Maine increased from 3,100 pounds in 2010 to 19,000 in 2012.

Sutter, who has never fished for elvers, said the urchin boom coincided with a sudden increase in the Gulf of Maine’s urchin population. There has been no similar spike in the eel population, he added. In fact, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission indicated in a stock assessment last year that the eels’ population is depleted in American waters from historical levels, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering listing the species under the Endangered Species Act.

State officials have said that despite the overall decline of eels along the East Coast, they don’t believe the elver fishery in Maine — which is one of only two states where elver fishing is allowed — is having a significant effect on the species’ overall population.

According to Sutter, increased regulation may reduce the amount of elvers that are harvested in Maine, but he doesn’t expect there to be any sudden declines in existing population levels that would cause buyers to look elsewhere. Federal regulators will act before that happens, he said.

“It won’t be a repeat [of the urchin bust],” he said.

Ian Emery, a Cutler resident who like Sutter sits on the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ urchin advisory council, said Thursday that when the price of urchins soared in the late 1980s, all that was needed was a general commercial fishing license. When he got into the fishery in the early 1990s he could go diving as often as he wanted, any time of year, and faced no catch limit. It took only 15 minutes of diving to fill up a 150-pound tote, he added.

“Some of the guys were making $1,000 or $2,000 a day,” Emery said. “It was second only to lobsters in terms of landings [volume] and value.”

Elvers, with an overall 2012 catch value of nearly $38 million, now rank second in Maine behind lobster in statewide fishing income. But with license limits that are in place, that income is spread out among fewer fishermen than it was during the urchin boom.

According to DMR records, there were more than 2,700 licensed urchin fishermen in Maine in 1994 (and only 377 in 2011). From 2006 through 2012, DMR capped the number of elver licenses it issued each year to 407. As part of an ongoing dispute with the Passamaquoddy Tribe about how many licenses the tribe can give its members, DMR increased its elver license limit this year to 432. DMR’s goal is to keep the statewide license total below the 744 limit set by ASMFC.

In contrast to the lack of fishing time restrictions during the urchin boom, elver fishermen are limited to fishing five days a week during a 10-week season that runs each spring from March 22 through May 31.

Robin Alden, who headed up the Maine Department of Marine Resources from early 1995 through 1997, said Thursday that not only were there almost no fishing restrictions on urchin fishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it took a relatively long time to put conservation measures in place.

At the time, DMR did not have the authority to implement new regulations on its own for new fisheries, as it does now, said Alden, who now serves as executive director at Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington. Consequently, it was up to the Legislature to implement management measures for urchins. And because demand and profitability already had soared, there was an intense lobbying effort to minimize whatever restrictions might be put in place, she said.

“There was a tremendous amount of lobbying,” Alden said. “It was really, really tough [to pass new conservation measures].”

Terry Stockwell, a longtime senior official at DMR, said Thursday that at the time, the prevailing approach was to help provide financial opportunities for fishermen, particularly those who lived Down East. He hesitated to say urchins were overfished, saying that environmental factors may have contributed to a decrease in their population, but that DMR’s regulatory approach has changed. The department still wants to help fishermen earn a living, he said, but not at the expense of any fishery’s long-term viability.

“It’s sort of lesson learned,” Stockwell said.

When it comes to the future of the elver fishery, he added, “ASMFC will be driving the bus.”

And no matter what restrictions might be put in place, Stockwell added, Mother Nature might address the issue on her own, he added.

Scientists believe that one reason that the urchin population in the gulf has not recovered is because of the dominant presence of kelp. Urchins feed on kelp and, when their numbers were high, prevented kelp from growing into thick patches that provide habitat to predators. Now that kelp is prevalent along the coast, the theory goes, it is providing shelter to a growing population of crabs that eat young urchins.

Stockwell said warm temperatures in Maine last spring contributed to robust elver runs in tidal estuaries and to the high elver landings total. Conversely, warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine this past winter have contributed to low shrimp landings, he added. This winter’s shrimp season in the gulf, which ended Friday, April 12, will be the first since at least 2010 that fishermen failed to reach their cumulative quota, which has been reduced each of the past four years.

“We’re nowhere near reaching the quota [of nearly 1.4 million pounds],” Stockwell said.

Alden cautioned that, even with elver management practices well established, it is unknown how they will affect Maine’s elver supply over the long term.

She said the fishery targets an early juvenile stage of the eel; that eels can live for 15-20 years; and that they don’t spawn until the end of their lives. The combination of these three factors means the effect of today’s fishery on the reproductive success of the species won’t be known for some time.

“We may not know the impact on the population for another 15-20 years, and that’s really scary,” she said.

Also, Alden said, the complex life cycle of the eel makes it more difficult to survey the population. Adult eels swim out to breed in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean before dying, and their young swim back to shore into tidal estuaries and upriver into lakes and ponds, sometimes choosing an entirely different latitude from where their parents spent their lives. Taking a survey to gauge how many eels might be out there, Alden said, is no simple task.

Urchins, by contrast, spend their life cycles in a much more concentrated area, reproducing in the same waters where they were born and grew, she said. If an area along the coast seems to have a relatively healthy adult population, it can be assumed that the population will remain healthy for at least the near future.

Sutter, however, is not optimistic about the future of Maine’s urchin fishery. During this past season, which ended last month, urchin fishermen in western Maine were limited to only 15 days fishing, while fishermen in eastern Maine, where the resource is healthier, were limited to 36 days. Regulators are calling for more reductions for the 2013-2014 season, which Sutter predicted will put some processors out of business. If the overall catch is too small, he said, processors and dealers won’t be able to produce enough to interest potential buyers, which will make it harder to sell what urchins are caught and push prices down.

Sutter said there are areas west of Penobscot Bay that haven’t been fished in seven or eight years and still urchin numbers remain low, which suggests environmental factors are at work.

Urchin aquaculture or seeding projects are possible but expensive, he added, and wouldn’t be effective without the establishment of smaller management zones, which would give local fishermen more control over the areas where they fish.

As long as there are only two zones and increasing catch restrictions, it will make it harder for fishermen to try out different management techniques that might prove effective.

“It’s been in a downward spiral for 20 years,” Sutter said of the urchin fishery. “I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....