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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 1

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Efforts underway to revitalize sea urchin industry

By Maureen Kelly

Dr. Larry Harris, a professor of zoology at the University of New Hampshire, recalls working on the Isles of Shoals in the early 1980s when he noticed a curious rise in the populations of green sea urchins, the only species of urchin found in the waters of New England and eastern Canada. In many areas, the spiny creatures formed "feeding fronts" that mowed down kelp beds in shallow, subtidal waters, leaving denuded areas that looked like a "floor with pincushions all over it," Harris says. 

Photo Larry HarrisUrchins were not widely fished in New England until then, but fishermen looking for other sources of income after restrictions were placed on fin fishing soon began to view the plentiful little invertebrates as a godsend. About 1987, fueled by Japan's demand for sea urchin roe, or "uni," an urchin fishery "boomed out of nowhere, overnight," Harris recalls. It was "like a gold rush." 

He adds, "Nobody was paying any attention to maintaining the populations in a sustainable way or fishing them in a sustainable way. It was, take everything you can, year round." 

Within about five years, unregulated fishing left urchin populations depleted in many areas. The State of Maine began requiring urchiners to be licensed in 1992 and issued a moratorium on licensing in 1994, but these efforts were too late to be effective. 
By that time, "there were already so many people in the fishery that there was no way it was going to be sustainable," Harris says.

Landings in Maine peaked during the 1992-93 season when fishermen harvested about 40 million pounds (18 million kilograms) of urchin, according to Maine's Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Now, Maine's 1,112 licensed urchiners are pulling in about 15 million pounds (6.75 million kilograms), less than half of the 1992-93 season's haul. 

Wild urchin populations, which are dredged or collected by hand by divers, quickly succumb to overfishing. Urchins procreate by releasing eggs and sperm into the water, and are more successful in producing offspring when in densely populated areas. When fishing reduces urchin masses, reproduction rates go down, and populations have less chance to recover.

There is a solution that could prevent urchin populations from bottoming out, however. At least two experimental aquaculture projectsżone at the University of New Hampshire funded by Sea Grant and the UNH Agriculture Experiment Station, and another at R.J. Peacock Canning Company in Lubec, Maineżare aiming to preserve New England's urchin as a commercially viable species and revitalize a slumping urchin fishery. Though controversial, some say the approach might hold the key to keeping healthy urchin populations in the sea. 

Harris, who is involved in the University of New Hampshire project, is trying to take some pressure off wild stocks by studying ways to produce large numbers of young urchins in a hatchery system. A spawning in a hatchery can yield "astronomical numbers" of pinhead-sized larvae, which can be grown until they are about the size of a nickel and then released into the ocean the following winter, he says. In three or four years, they will have matured and be ready for harvest.

"The idea is to demonstrate that it is economically feasible to grow urchins commercially," he says. "I always thought urchining would be a supplemental fishery to something like lobstering because it's a winter fishery. That's when urchins are of highest quality and bring in the most money." 

The only sea urchin hatchery in the region, operated by Peacock Canning Company, is a side effort within a salmon hatchery. The company began its sea urchin hatchery in the mid-1990s, also with the aim of replenishing wild urchin stocks. Hank Stence, the sea urchin hatchery's manager, says he thought it was "time to do something," before the wild stocks of urchins were depleted. That's happening pretty quickly," he adds. 

The hatchery, which is still experimental and not yet turning a profit, is showing promising results. It has had three successful spawnings and has raised urchins from larvae to adult. The last spawning yielded 50,000 juvenile urchins that are now three-and-a-half-months old with healthy appetites for kelp. They have survived the formative stage during which they develop their jaw apparatus. Once a young urchin develops its mouthparts and is able to graze, it is "a tough little unit," Stence says.

To raise urchins commercially, a hatchery has to do several spawnings in a year and produce millions of urchins, Stence says. A new piece of equipment, called a chiller, is enabling the company to stagger spawning periods. In nature, urchins spawn in late winter or early spring when the water temperature begins to rise. The chiller keeps tank water cold enough that it can trick urchins into thinking it is still winter and prevent the hatchery stock from reproducing all at once. Hatchery managers can then take brood stock for fertilization throughout the year. Stence foresees the hatchery possibly working with the state to help replenish wild stocks. Commercial markets could include supplying juveniles for other aquaculture projects and working with salmon farmers to do poly-culture, since urchins could thrive on algae that grow on the bottom of salmon bins. Another possibility involves growing urchins entirely in indoor tanks, from the larval stage to adulthood.

The Peacock Canning Company and the UNH project are demonstrating that the green sea urchin can be grown through aquaculture but according to Donald Cheney, professor of biology at Northeastern University, the question is, can New England produce urchins at a price that Japanese buyers are willing to pay?

Starting any hatchery is an expensive undertaking, requiring large capital investments for equipment and operating costs. Offshore sea farms, where hatchery-raised urchins would be placed to mature, also cost money and require personnel.

And when it comes to selling uni, the competition is not just local. New Englanders have rivals around the world. Japan imports urchin from a number of sources including California, China, Canada, Russia and Chile. 

Despite the competition, urchin harvesting is still profitable overall. But the question remains whether there will be healthy urchin populations to harvest in the future. Urchin numbers are low enough in some areas of Maine that the state is considering relocating wild urchins to areas that once supported them. If wild stocks continue to fall off, replenishing stocks by aquaculture might be another alternative but, according to Margaret Hunter, marine resources scientist for Maine's DMR, "That's very controversial."

Fishermen who harvest urchins have their own concerns about aquaculture. 

"The fishermen involved in the wild fishery are worried about losing bottom to aquaculturists," Hunter says. They fear that aquaculture companies will start cordoning off tracts of seabed along Maine's coast, reducing their fishing grounds. They cite salmon farming in Maine as an example of how aquaculture can fall into the hands of a few large corporate concerns. 

"I think they're worried about the competition to some degree," Hunter says.

Harris says he remains optimistic about the role that aquaculture might play in New England's urchin fishery, but also adds, "[Fishermen] would like to stay in business. It's our job to try and provide them with the information to stay in business."

Maureen Kelly is a graduate student in journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a Gulf of Maine Times intern.