Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Maine Sea-Urchin Boom Faces a Prickly Future

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Maine Sea-Urchin Boom Faces a Prickly Future

Article excerpt

ON the watery first floor at Great Atlantic Seafood, Inc., rubber-booted workers methodically crack open, extract, and clean piles of fresh Maine sea urchin.

These round, prickly shelled animals, no bigger than tennis balls, have become an important export commodity here. During the cold winter months, in particular, divers and fishermen flock to the coast to scoop them off underwater rocks. The urchins are sold and exported to Japan where urchin eggs, or roe, are widely consumed.

This relatively new seafood industry in Maine has grown rapidly over the past six years. In 1987, fishermen landed 1.4 million pounds of sea urchins; by the end of 1993, the figure surged to almost 27 million pounds.

Most urchins were shipped live to Japan until a processing industry got under way two years ago. Now, at least six major urchin processors are based in Portland, while others have sprung up along the Maine coast. Processed Maine sea urchin can sell for between $10 to $40 a pound, says Lloyd Covens, co-owner of the Urchin Merchant, a processing plant in Portland.

Despite the industry's early success here in Maine, urchiners are worried about the future. The urchin population, which some say has peaked, may face a gradual decline. In addition, there are complaints about unfair competition from out-of-state plants and ineffective state regulations.

The urchin resource is overtaxed due to the increasing number of both experienced and amateur urchin fishermen, says Joe Mokry, a Maine urchin diving instructor. The state has licensed 1,900 divers and 500 dragger boats for sea urchining and that already is too much, he says.

Competing with out-of-state processors is another problem. Fred Hamilton, general manager at Great Atlantic Seafood, Inc., says Maine-based plants must compete with New York processors who hire illegal aliens to avoid high state labor costs. …

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