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Lawmakers Look to Revive Maine's Struggling Sea Urchin Fishery
12/05/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

After a steep decline from the record harvests of 20 years ago, Maine's sea urchin industry is hanging on - but just barely. As small as last year's catch was, it still carried a value of $5 million for the fewer than 400 harvesters who are licensed by the state. Some harvesters say more could be done to improve the fishery, and as A.J. Higgins reports, a legislative panel is looking at ways to hasten the recovery of the urchin population.

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In the Stephen King horror novel of the same name, a "dead zone" was an area of the human brain that had sustained permanent damage as the result of an accident. In Maine's struggling sea urchin harvesting industry, the term defines an equally undesirable outcome - but it's no accident.

"Dead zones: areas where there used to be urchins and there just aren't any anymore," said Rep. Walter Kumiega.

Along with other members of the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, Kumiega, a Stonington Democrat, is looking for ways to revitalize what has become a rapidly dwindling industry statewide - despite some reports of improvement in certain areas.

The panel is reviewing whether a bill carried over from this year's session could provide possible remedies to help the urchin fishery rebound. Since its peak in 1993 with a harvest of more than 41 million pounds, the urchin industry has diminished to a level where it is now providing an income for a limited number of harvesters.

Last year, fishermen harvested less than two million pounds of urchins that are highly prized for their eggs, known as roe, by a number of Asian countries - especially Japan. Some fishermen wonder whether the urchin fishery can be saved. Kumiega says there are stories that suggest it can.

"There are some guys who that they had on their own reseeded ledges, and they put urchins there and those areas have since become at least somewhat productive again," Kumiega said. "But it's hard to invest a lot of money into restocking or replenishing a zone. The purpose of this would be to allow people to do that and then have exclusive harvest rights for an area for a period of time - not forever."

Maine currently has two urchin zones: the so-called Zone 1 that extends from Kittery to Rockland, and Zone 2 that runs from Vinalhaven to Canada. Rep. Michael Devin, a Newcastle Democrat and the bill's sponsor, says the two-zone concept may actually be an obstacle to revitalizing the urchin population.

"Those two zones are much too large because the sea urchin population dynamics are very on a much smaller scale than our present zones," Devin said. "And so the thought is that if we can go ahead and establish small-scale sea urchin zones that take into account the population dynamics of what's happening in that specific area, the fishery may be able to manage a little bit better."

The Marine Resources committee plans to continue its work session on the urchin zones next year.


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