EDMUNDS, Maine — Business was brisk for fishermen plying Denny’s Bay at the start of the late dragging season for sea urchins on Monday.
A couple of companies bought sea urchins from fishermen as they landed their catch at the boat ramp at Cobscook Bay State Park.
Prices were off compared to the same time about a year ago, but most fishermen were not arguing and were happy to exchange their catch for cash.
About a dozen pickup trucks belonging to fishermen, with boat trailers for skiffs or small vessels, were parked at the boat ramp, and about a dozen boats were moored off shore. A fairly steady flow of fishermen motored to the landing to bring in their catch, meeting buyers at the edge of the water or up in the parking lot as they pulled their trailered boats out of the water.
“It’s all right,” said Howard Robbins of Trescott, who accepted $2.85 per pound for his seven totes, said of the prices that were being offered. Filled totes can weigh anywhere from 70 to 100 pounds apiece.
Duy Danh, an employee of Family Seafood in Portland who was at the boat ramp with others from the company to buy sea urchins, said the business processes the sea urchins for their eggs or roe, packs them into containers, and ships them fresh via airline to markets in Japan. The roe are consumed raw, said Danh, who indicated that there are about a half-dozen similar businesses in Portland.
The Cambodian buyers at the boat ramp were offering $2.50-$3 per pound, according to Danh.
The buyers sampled a few sea urchins, cracking them open with a special tool to see how much roe they contained.
It is a gamble, Danh indicated. If a fisherman puts the best sea urchins on top of the tote, ones heavy with eggs, but has a lot beneath with little or no roe, “we take a loss,” he said.
Other companies were buying sea urchins in Lubec, Danh said, and other buyers operate in Jonesport, Eastport, Rockland and Tenants Harbor.
The company employees drove up Sunday night, he said, and would stay in the area a day or two until their truck was full, then return to Portland.
Barry Wood of Machiasport got $2.75 a pound for his catch. “I guess it’s all right,” he said.
Prices were higher last year, Wood acknowledged, but this season the sea urchins are not as full with roe, he said. There is not enough food — kelp — for the urchins, suggested Wood. “Last year they were better.”
Sea urchins were going for about $5 a pound just before Christmas last year, Wood recalled — more than twice the price of lobsters at the time. “Hard to believe,” he said.
Last year, urchin fishermen statewide harvested about 1.9 million pounds and earned just over $5 million, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“Decent day for it, anyway,” said Wood, referring to working on the water Monday morning when the temperatures were in the low 40s. “Warm. Better than the cold.”
Wood and his son, Eric, and another crewman, Joe Kelton, both also of Machiasport, filled the limit of seven totes working in about 90 minutes. Their catch totaled 690 pounds. At $2.75 per pound, that adds up to $1,897.50.
Not bad for a morning’s work? “No, it ain’t,” said Wood. “It really ain’t.”
A fisherman who asked not to be identified was not happy with the prices being offered, however, and loaded his totes into his pickup truck. “I’ll go find them,” he said, referring to other buyers.
He had been offered $2.50 per pound. Only two companies were buying at the boat ramp, he observed, although as many as eight buyers have been known to conduct business there, bidding up prices.
The state Department of Marine Resources regulates sea urchin harvesting according to the method — diving, raking and trapping, or dragging — and divides the fishery into zones, and there is an early season and late season for both classes of harvesting methods.
For Denny’s Bay, Monday was the start of the late season for draggers, and it consists of eight more days in December; the late season for divers, rakers and trappers begins Dec. 10 and consists of four other days in December and four days in March.