From Boom to Bust--the Harvest of Urchins in Maine

By Terry Hussey

Druscilla Ray of Cherry Point Products in Milbridge told members of the Milbridge Historical Society on May 8  that the sea urchin boom on the Maine coast, beginning in the late 1980’s, which lasted less than ten years.

Ray said that the urchin boom began in the mid 1980’s.  At that time, there were no rules.  Divers or draggers could take as much product as they wanted, in any season.  There were no regulations for the divers either.  "Untrained people just got the equipment and jumped overboard.  And there were some deaths.  It was just a case of inexperienced people not knowing what they were doing," said Ray.

Ray said at the peak of the boom, there were about 3,000 urchin divers in Maine.  The price started at three cents a pound, and by the banner year of 1993, it was up to $2 a pound.  "In 1993, the industry harvested 40 million pounds of urchins," said Ray.  "I know people who earned $120,000 a year harvesting urchins," she said.  "Many people made $80,000 a year."

Today urchins are in short supply.  Where a diver in the early 1990’s could fill 100 totes in a day, he struggles now to fill 5 to 7.  The price has skyrocketed to $4 to $16 dollars a pound.

Coloring depends on Diet

Sea urchins are crusty little creatures that live on the ocean bottom and eat seaweed.  Their color varies from various shades of green, tan, black, and even white, depending on their diet.  Urchins are plentiful under the salmon pens, but they have a fishy taste and can’t be used. The most prized uchins have short, snug, tight, spines.  The Japanese most favor owns with pink roe, called uni, but the roe comes in a variety of colors from reds to yellows and even black.

Because of the way the eggs are fertilized, urchins thrive only when they can live in colonies. The female squirts her eggs from a hole in the top of the shell.  The males spray the released eggs to fertilize them.

The Japanese eat the uni raw.  It is considered a delicacy and is especially sought after to celebrate various holidays in Japan. They put them in scrambled eggs or wrap them in nori, a seaweed.

Ray showed the group how the roe is harvested by putting a cracker into the top of the shell to split it open.  Inside are five fingers which each contain the meat.  The one she opened contained soft pink meat, which rapidly became soft upon exposure to air and light.  In the processing plants, the roe is bathed in salt water and other solutions to preserve it.

Processing urchin roe is piecework, done at plants in New York or Massachusetts.  "Having small hands seems to help," she said.  "The cleaned roe is artfully arranged on wooden trays, to make it look appealing," she said.  The shelf life is about two weeks.  Uni can’t be frozen.  Divers must be very careful when handling the harvested urchins so they don’t freeze between the time it comes out of the water and the time it gets to the buyer.  Because the harvest takes place in winter, this is sometimes tricky.

Checking for Quality

A diver can’t tell whether he’s harvesting good marketable urchins on sight, so he usually sends a small basket of urchins up to the surface, where his partner opens a few to see the quality of the product before harvesting a large quantity.  Buyers operate the same way.  They take a ten-pound sample from the one hundred pound tote, and open each shell.  They weight the roe, and calculate the ratio of roe to urchin.  A good ratio would be 15%.

Ray said that the same places on the ocean floor tend to produce good urchins year after year, while other places yield only poor quality ones on a regular basis.  She said sometimes the divers can harvest in water so shallow one can see the top of their oxygen tanks, but they also harvest in water that is 30-40 feet deep.  A diver would use four or five tanks of oxygen per day.  Draggers get urchins from water that’s 60-80 feet deep.

Divers invest about $2200 for a full set of diving gear.  If they don’t have a boat, they work with someone who does, paying them 30%-40% of the day’s take.  When the urchin business was at its peak, the Rays opened a dive shop to make it easy for their divers to acquire equipment and supplies.

Regulating the Industry

Ray said that in the early 1990’s the state became concerned about safety issues in the industry.  "At first the legislature wanted to regulate the industry themselves, rather than having it done by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR)," said Ray. "I didn’t feel comfortable with a potato farmer from Aroostock County making rules about something coming from the ocean floor," she said.

In 1994, the Urchin Council was formed to make recommendations to the legislature and DMR.  It was made up of 16 people who were directly involved with the industry, as buyers and harvesters. Ray served on this Council.  The first regulation they recommended  was for a safety course and for certification for divers. Later they recommended seasons for harvesting and size limitations.  The current minimum size limit is two inches, but it will gradually increase to 2 -1/4inches.  There is no upper size limit.

Today licensing of urchin harvesters is severely limited.  For every five people who don’t re-new their license, one new harvester is licensed by lottery.  Harvest is limited to a certain number of days per year. "If they know they can only harvest for a certain number of days, harvesters often push the limits and go out in bad weather. It becomes a safety issue," Ray said.

The Maine coast is divided into two zones with two different seasons for harvest, all in the cold weather months.  The southern coast can harvest from September through February, while in this area, the season runs from November until mid-April.  Timing is critical.  The roe must be harvested just before the urchin is about to spawn.  When spawning is at its peak in the southern part of the zone, the urchins aren’t ready for harvest in the far northern limits of the zone. Also figured into the timing is the market demand.  The Japanese want the uni for their holiday seasons.

Ray said that when the urchin boom was in full swing, her company was the only buyer east of Stonington.  They acted only as buyers, never processors.  They once filled three tractor trailers, 20,000 pounds of urchins, in a night.  The Rays stopped buying in January of 1999, because they couldn’t get enough volume to make it worthwhile.

Ray said much research is underway to determine more about life cycle of urchins and their effect on the rest of the sea life.  She said that when urchins are scarce, the seaweed tends to grow up in great giant fronds.  Some say this encourages the proliferation of lobsters, but there is no definitive information to support this theory.