LUBEC, Maine — On the waters of Cobscook Bay this week, fishing boats are abundant: 23 boats in the water by dawn Monday. This is the first day of the sea urchin dragging season, and in these rich waters — the extreme tides bring in nutrients to the sea life — sea urchins are plentiful.

Captain Jonathan Wallace, owner of the dragger Endangered Species, and his two deckhands, Daphne Savage and Derek Lyons, work nonstop.

With an ear-jarring screech, the winch pulls up the drag — a suspended basket constructed of metal rings — and holds it above a work table at the back of the boat.

Savage and Lyons open the drag and its booty spills out: hundreds of sea urchins mixed in with a little kelp, a few green crabs, a starfish or two and plenty of ungainly-looking sea cucumbers.

The pair work feverishly sorting the urchins by size — nothing smaller than 2 1/16 inches can be taken — and with a swipe of their arms, the rest is dropped back into the sea.

Wallace pilots the boat back and forth, back and forth, in 31-foot deep water off Cooper’s Island. Box after box of sea urchins pile up on the deck.

Wallace cracks an urchin open, revealing its creamy, carrot colored roe that is prized in Asia as a delicacy.

“There it is,” he says. “That is what we are all after.”

From no rules to overfished

The unattractive spiny sea urchin once was a nuisance to lobster fishermen, getting caught in their traps and pricking their hands.

But all that changed in 1986, when a group of international seafood buyers came calling. Urchin eggs, or uni, are highly sought after by the Japanese as a rare and expensive delicacy.

“The urchins used to be garbage,” Wallace said. “Now they are a resource.”

By the late 1980s, Japan’s sea urchin harvest had dropped 41 percent due to overfishing and marketers were looking for fresh supplies. It turned out that the cold waters off Maine produced some of the finest urchins anywhere.

When the Maine market first began to blossom, urchins were going for 14 to 28 cents a pound and the harvest was unregulated. Urchin landings skyrocketed. More than 1,500 divers worked the sea year round, and prices shot as high as $3.50 a pound, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Licenses to help DMR track the number of urchin harvesters were put into effect in January 1992. Earning $150,000 during the 85-day season was not unheard of. Landings reached a high of 41.6 million pounds in 1993, according to the DMR, a level that clearly was not sustainable.

In January 1994 a more comprehensive management plan went into effect, which limited the amount that can be harvested and created two fishing zones. Zone 1 extends from Kittery to Rockland and Zone 2 from Vinalhaven to Canada.

Since then the catch has continuously declined until some promising signs appeared this year.

University of Maine researchers determined in 2003 that divers and draggers were killing urchins about three times faster than the mollusks were able to replace themselves and that only about 10 percent of the once-plentiful urchin population remained.

With urchin stocks in Zone 1 virtually depleted, only 10 days of harvesting is allowed. In Zone 2, where stocks are greater, 45 days are allowed.

An industry destroyed?

In 1994, there were 2,725 Maine urchin licenses; this year there are 434. In 1994, 40 million pounds of urchins were harvested; last year, 2.7 million pounds were taken.

Urchin buyer Atchan Tamaki of ISF Trading in Portland and Lubec said Maine has slipped from once being the No. 1 supplier of urchins, to the No. 3 slot behind Russia and China.

Tamaki was the pioneer of Maine’s urchin business and said that at the peak, he bought 12 million pounds of urchin roe from Maine fishermen. This year he expects to buy about 1.5 million pounds.

Although the harvest figures have plummeted, DMR scientist Margaret Hunter says the industry has not been destroyed. In fact, a spring assessment is cause for optimism in Zone 2, she said.

“We found that Zone 1 really hasn’t recovered,” she said. But the decline in Zone 2 seems to have leveled off and could be rebounding.

“It is possible there is some improvement,” she said. “We are keeping our fingers crossed and being very tentative about our optimism. We still have a $5 million [annual value] industry here.”

Marcus Jones of Gouldsboro is on the state Sea Urchin Zone Council, a DMR advisory board made up of industry people and scientists, and was one of the divers who participated in the assessment.

“It was good and we were pleasantly surprised,” he said. “This was the first year we saw large sized urchins. There were places in Jonesport where the bottom was covered.”

Jones said the assessment involved 162 diving locations from New Hampshire to Eastport. He said half of the sites were computer-selected while the rest were traditional urchin breeding locations.

Jones said that what he saw during the dives indicated the shortened season and the management plan are working.

“Without a doubt, the curtailed season should continue,” he said.

Hunter said reseeding trials conducted last April off Winter Harbor also showed promise. “We are still assessing the numbers, but the divers are reporting to us that the population is looking really good,” Hunter said.

Reseeding, in which adult urchins are relocated to depleted areas, is tricky because once the urchin population is removed from an area, algaes such as kelp grow back.

“This algae then harbors small crabs and other life that feeds on small urchins,” Hunter said. “This has proven very difficult to reverse.”

“Even though reseeding has shown some promise, it would have been better to manage the stock in the first place,” she said.

Doug McNaught, a scientist at the University of Maine at Machias, agrees with Hunter. McNaught studies urchin survival rates and using reseeding to recover the urchin population.

“The population in Zone 2 appears to be leveling out, albeit at low levels,” he said. “It appears to be 10 percent of what it once was.”

As a member of the urchin council, McNaught said many options are currently being looked at to manage the industry.

“We are trying to come up with new regulations,” he said. “We will continue to work over the next few months, and by next spring we should have new recommendations for the DMR and the Legislature.”

McNaught said some of the options being researched include changing the number of harvest days, instituting quotas, or creating a flexible harvest season that would allow for harvesting on good weather days for safety reasons.

Another member of the council, Jim Wadsworth of Camden, who buys urchins, said that balancing the need to keep the fishery vital and the need to protect the resource is a tough balancing act.

“I’ve been doing this 20 years and this may be my last year,” Wadsworth said, but added that shutting down the harvest to give it time to recover would be too harsh a blow.

“The Maine processors would lose their market position,” he said. “If the buyers can’t get urchins in Maine, they’ll go somewhere else. I think we have to find a way to make it work.”

Regulations: help or hinder?

Wallace watched Monday as his deckhands tossed more small urchins back into the cold waters than they keep. He called Monday’s harvest “a good day” and was encouraged by the numbers found. When he reached the dock in Lubec late in the afternoon and the seafood buyers swarmed around the load, he collected $4,000 for the day’s work.

He said the urchin population is sound in Cobscook Bay and chafes hard against the 45-day season limit.

“I’m catching only 10 percent of what is on the bottom,” Wallace said. “Between equipment issues and weather, we’re lucky to get 35 days in. Every other state seems to help their fishermen. Maine seems to hold us back.”

A fourth-generation fisherman, Wallace said the urchin fishery days should be expanded.

Many of the urchin fishermen feel this way, but DMR and others disagree, arguing that the management of the urchin population through shortening the season is working.

“We have the most controversial fisheries in the world right here in Maine,” Jones said. “It was tough to change, to go from a completely unregulated system to one with such a shortened season, but once it happened and we are now seeing the result, we are convinced of its value.”

Jones said he was asked in the 1990s if the urchin beds would ever be “fished out” and he said no. “The places where we were then seeing urchins 3 to 4 inches deep are not totally barren. It was the cowboy mentality — ‘take it all’ — that got this fishery here in the first place.”

Jones said he believes the shortened season system should stay in place “at least another four years. If not managed properly this time, we’ll be in the same place as the herring and other fisheries. It will simply be gone.”