Yesterday, in the name of conservation, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) adopted rule changes and regulations for the State’s 2013-14 sea urchin season. The green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis), which was little more than a pest to Maine fishers up until the mid-1980s, has become big money for a handful of hearty divers and draggers who brave winter weather, chaotic currents and muddled markets to put the urchin’s roe—better known as uni—on plates from Boston to Tokyo.
Boom to Bust Cycle
A 41 million pound fishery valued at over $30 million by the early 90s, today’s urchin fishery in Maine is but a shadow of its former self with fewer than 2.5 million pounds landed in 2011. For some fisheries observers, there are eerie parallels to be drawn between the glory days of the urchin fishery and the current boom in the Maine juvenile American eel or elver fishery.
Like Maine’s elver fishery, the gold rush mentality in the State’s sea urchin fishery is largely a reaction to overseas buyers desperate to meet demand in the face of dwindling stocks closer to home. With urchins overfished and biomass way down in Japanese waters, Japanese buyers have increasingly gone further afield, and entrepreneurially minded U.S.-based processors, like those in Portland, Maine, have been happy to meet them more than halfway. The result is a fishery some experts say is on the brink.
Sea Urchin Zone Council & New Regulations
In an effort to pull Maine’s sea urchin fishery back from the edge of the abyss, the Sea Urchin Zone Council was formed to advise DMR on how to manage what was left of the fishery. A slew of regulations and rules resulted, including a two-zone system, slot limits and limited entry. While there are indications these efforts have been beneficial, critics worry that a suite of management tools do not constitute what Maine’s sea urchin fishery needs most: a comprehensive fishery management plan.
The regulations and new rules that became effective yesterday are the result of the Sea Urchin Zone Council’s most recent work and are made possible under Marine Resources Law, which gives DMR the power to investigate conditions affecting marine resources and, with the advice and consent of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, adopt or amend regulations to promote the conservation and propagation of those organisms. Specifically, a 15-day season for divers, trappers, rakers and draggers in Zone 1 (west) was established, while a 38-day season in Zone 2 (east) was set.
Projected 13% Reduction in Fishing Mortality & A Steady Market Supply
The Zone 1 season is the same length as last year’s, while the Zone 2 season has been extended by two days. DMR believes these rule changes will actually decrease fishing mortality because, in addition to the number of days in the season, a daily catch limit of no more than seven totes was also established in Zone 2 (a standard size fish tote is 28 inches long by 16 inches wide and 11 inches deep. Seven totes are roughly 600 pounds). A DMR spokesperson says these regulations and rule changes may have a net reduction in total catches of about 13 percent for Zone 2, which is, according to the best available science, not recovering. According to DMR:
The sea urchin resource in Maine’s Zone 2 has not shown significant signs of recovery since stocks declined and the season was drastically shortened in 2004; all current measures of stock abundance including landings, survey abundance, and catch rates are at historically low levels.
In addition to conserving the species in and of itself, DMR worked with the Sea Urchin Zone Council to develop rule changes intended to achieve a decrease in fishing mortality without causing a disadvantage to any particular industry group or area. A DMR spokesperson explains:
The daily catch limit may reduce overall catches (and fishing mortality) somewhat, provide a steadier supply of sea urchins to the market, and encourage harvesters to fish for fewer, higher quality, higher priced urchins. The two-day increase in the length of the season should provide the industry with a little more flexibility to work around bad weather and ensure a steadier supply for the market.