Card plan for Maine's valuable urchins draws mixed response

AP News
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Posted: Jun 07, 2015 10:45 AM

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Fishermen and dealers of Maine's valuable sea urchins are approaching a state plan to track the fishery with swipe cards with the same caution they exercise around the spiny animals.

State regulators want to create a swipe card system to record transactions in which fishermen sell urchins to dealers. The cards would help more efficiently gather data about the fishery and could eventually help give fishermen more flexibility about when they fish, said Maggie Hunter, a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Fishermen typically dive to harvest Maine's urchins by hand or take them with gear dragged by boats. They are harvested for their roe, which is especially popular in Japan and stateside Japanese restaurants, where it's called uni and appears in sushi, sashimi and other dishes. The fishery for Maine urchins, which dealers said have a flavor that is appealing to the Japanese market, is by far the most valuable urchin fishery in the U.S. by price per pound at the dock.

Joe Leask, a diver on the Maine coast who is also the chairman of the Maine Sea Urchin Zone Council advisory board, said he's not sure the swipe card system is necessary. Urchin fishermen already keep log books and are subject to a highly regulated fishing season as it is, Leask said.

"What is the goal of the swipe card? If it's accountability, the system's already in place," Leask said. "I'm not sure it's a tool that's needed right now."

The swipe card system will allow state regulators to collect information about the volume and price of urchin sales in real time, Hunter said. That will allow for better management of the fishery, she said.

The proposed swipe card system would have no fiscal impact on fishermen, but there is a pending state bill that would allow state officials to require urchin dealers to purchase the swipe card readers, marine resources department spokesman Jeff Nichols said. The state already has the equipment on hand because they were purchased for a similar program in the state's baby eel fishery, he said.

The proposed 2015-16 urchin fishing season would begin in September and end in March, and fishermen would be limited to 15 fishing days in part of the Maine coast and 38 fishing days in much of the rest. Under the current system, the legal fishing days are predetermined before the start of the season. Hunter said the swipe card system might make it possible to let fishermen pick their own days in the future.

But Sinuon Chau, an urchin dealer and buyer based in Scarborough, said such a change might be bad news for those who trade in urchins. Urchin buyers work on the same days the fishermen are fishing. A change to a flexible schedule would mean buyers wouldn't be able to predict what days the urchins would be available from their harvesters, Chau said.

"We could be buying seven days a week," Chau said. "There's not enough supply to go around. We're competing to the point where we can't really make any money."

Maine and California have the most valuable sea urchin fisheries in the country, with California's much larger 12.9 million-pound fishery valued at $9.8 million in 2013. The total catch of Maine urchins was a little less than 2 million pounds that year, and the price per pound was almost four times higher.

Maine's urchin fishery stabilized about ten years ago after years of decline that followed a boom in harvest in the late 1980s and 1990s, Hunter said. The fishery peaked at 41.6 million pounds worth $26.8 million in 1993. Participation in the fishery has also waned — there were 317 commercial licensed issued in 2014 compared to about 2,700 in the mid-1990s.

The swipe card proposal is subject to the approval of the Maine Department of Marine Resources Advisory Council, which is likely to next meet in July. May 29 was the last day for the state to collect public comment on the proposal.