State officials are hoping what is good for elvers will be good for urchins, too.

Having implemented an electronic “swipe” card system in the elver fishery in 2014, the Maine Department of Marine Resources now is requiring urchin fishermen and wholesale dealers to use such cards to register every transaction. The requirement, which will give the department up-to-the-minute statewide harvest data, went into effect when the urchin season got underway on Sept. 1.

The goal, according to DMR officials, is to better manage the struggling fishery, which has seen far better times. Just over 20 years ago, Maine’s annual urchin landings briefly exceeded $40 million, noted Patrick Keliher, head of DMR. Only lobstering, which in the mid-1990s first passed the $100 million-a-year mark, was more valuable.

With only $4.3 million in total statewide landings in Maine in 2015, urchins now are the state’s seventh-most lucrative commercially fished species. The vast majority of all the urchins harvested in Maine are shipped to the Far East for the region’s voracious seafood market.

“The DMR has had great success with the swipe card system in the elver fishery,” Keliher said in a statement. “This technology has helped Maine ensure the future of that important fishery. We anticipate that the swipe card system will also support efforts to restore and sustain Maine’s urchin fishery.”

In the state’s elver fishery, which also has seen a decline in landings, swipe cards have provided regulators with better catch data and have convinced the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, which a few years ago considered shutting the fishery down, to allow the catching of young eels to continue. Elvers generated $11.4 million in fishing revenue in Maine in 2015.

Trisha Cheney, urchin management coordinator for DMR, added that improved catch data could improve the likelihood of more harvesting opportunities for fishermen down the road.

“When managers must rely on insufficient or outdated information, it forces them to be more precautionary in their approach,” she said in the statement. “By providing managers with more timely and accurate data, the new urchin swipe card system will improve our understanding of the fishery, allowing for more targeted measures.”

Phippsburg urchin diver Clint Richardson, who sits on DMR’s urchin advisory council, is not sure swipe cards will help people like him anytime soon. He called the cards a “double-edged sword.”

According to Richardson, DMR officials have suggested that, because the cards can be used to track when a fisherman goes out, the cards could be used to create a system by which fishermen could avoid bad weather. Because state law does not allow urchin fishermen to possess more than their daily limit of seven crates, also known as totes, he said, they sell their catch at the end of each day so they can go out again the next morning.

Fishermen are only allowed to collect urchins a few days a week, he said, so there is pressure to go out even in bad weather. But if the cards can be used to demonstrate that a fisherman did not go out on a stormy day, Richardson said, that fisherman conceivably could get permission to go out instead on a calmer day.

That’s a theoretical benefit. The drawback, Richardson said, is that using the cards makes urchin transactions slower because fishermen must answer a number of questions about each catch. “It takes about 15 minutes longer,” he said. “It’s an inconvenience, [but] as long as it doesn’t cost any extra money, fishermen will go along with it, even if they don’t like it.”

Urchin fishermen in Maine have seen a lot of changes in their fishery over the past 30 years.

Before 1987, the value of statewide landings never reached $10,000 a year. By 1993 a surge in demand from the Far East, similar to the more recent boom in Maine’s elver fishery, pumped Maine’s annual urchin fishing revenue to more than $40 million.

But the urchin fishing frenzy, which was largely unregulated and for six straight years netted more than 20 million pounds of urchins, didn’t last.

By the early 2000s, the value and volume of the fishery were quickly declining. Last year, Maine’s 305 licensed urchin fishermen harvested 1.5 million pounds of urchins with a dockside value of $4.31 million. That was the lowest volume since 1988 and and the lowest value since 1990.

Meanwhile, demand for the spiny creatures has remained relatively high. The average price urchin fishermen have earned for their catch for each of the past four years has been above $2.50 per pound, more than double what they were getting during the frenzy. At the peak of the fishery in the mid-1990s, the per-pound price for fishermen ranged from $0.86 to $1.12.

Richardson said he doesn’t expect Maine’s urchins to ever generate the revenue they did 20 years ago, when there were “a few thousand” fishermen in the state diving and dragging for them. Now, there are fewer than 400 Maine fishermen with urchin licenses, which didn’t exist back then, he said.

“It will never be a $40 million fishery again,” he said. “They let [too many fishermen] in, and they chewed them all up. Under [proper management] it could be a $20 million industry, and very healthy.”

Richardson said that he expects the catch data from the swipe cards, combined with the annual springtime scientific surveys of the Gulf of Maine urchin population, to help shape efforts to rebuild the urchin population.

Meanwhile, members of Maine’s congressional delegation say they are making progress in streamlining the federal inspection process for live urchin exports, which should help protect the viability of the perishable shipments.

As urchin prices increased, federal officials stepped up their inspections of live urchins and sea cucumbers entering and leaving the country. Seafood dealers in Maine successfully pushed U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in 2014 and later U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin to introduce legislation to reduce the inspection requirements, which dealers say cause unnecessary delays and put their live product at risk of dying. That measure recently passed the House and faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

“Urchin dealers in Maine should be exempted from these inspections just like lobster and other shellfish are,” Pingree said in the statement. “This is a highly perishable product, and the shipments keep getting held up waiting for someone from the federal government to sign off on them.”

Just recently, Pingree added, she intervened when Maine urchins worth an estimated $50,000 were held up at JFK airport in New York while inspectors were off duty over the long Labor Day weekend. She was able to expedite their clearance so they could be exported before the weekend was out.

Poliquin said in the statement that passage of the House bill is “a big win” for more than 650 Mainers who work in the urchin and sea cucumber industries.

“There is no reason for bureaucrats in Washington to get in the way of their livelihoods by imposing unnecessary and harmful rules that directly threaten their businesses,” he said.

In June, Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to express concerns about the inspections. Such language was included in the report accompanying the 2017 Interior Appropriations bill that passed that committee.

“This shift [toward increased inspections] has had negative economic effects with no demonstrated benefit,” the report said. “The committee notes that the general inspection of seafood for import or export is not included in the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service’s mandate and directs the service to reevaluate its interpretation of shellfish to encompass aquatic invertebrates marketed and consumed as seafood.”

Avatar photo

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....