Sea urchin fishermen are finding slim pickings in Cobscook Bay since the Maine Zone 2 season opened on October 1. This year boats are limited to no more than seven totes per day, but Maine Marine Patrol officer Russell Wright reports that some draggers didn't even get that amount on the first day.
"There ain't many," comments Lubec fisherman Milton Chute. "A 10-box day would be hard." Wright adds, "There are lots of eggs, but they're just not big enough." The state's minimum size for urchins is 2 1/16".
While last year Chute earned $6,700 on the first day, this year he made only $2,200. "It takes you three days what last year you could get in a one day. That's going to make quite a difference." With the catch limit, Chute observes, "They ain't there any way, so maybe it's a good thing they did it."
The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) had worked with the Sea Urchin Zone Council to develop the rule changes, which are intended to reduce the overall harvest without causing a disadvantage to divers or draggers. The DMR estimates that the tote limit in combination with two additional days in the season C for a total of 38 open days C may reduce total catches by 13% in Zone 2, where the resource has continued to decline.
"They're making sure there's no good money being made," says Chute. "I had a good year last year, but I'll never in my life see that again." He adds, "Maybe in my time I'll see it go to pieces."
With the new daily catch limit regulation, Wright says he has issued a few warnings for totes being too full. The regulation states that the totes need to be stackable, so they cannot be filled to overflowing. He notes that since it's a new law, the Marine Patrol only issues warnings at first. Although the weight varies according to the roe count, Wright says seven full totes will average about 630 pounds total.
Over 30 boats have been dragging in Cobscook Bay, with the local fleet joined by boats from Cutler, Bucks Harbor and Roque Bluffs.
The price has ranged from $2.50 to $4 a pound, depending on the roe count. "If it goes down to $2 a pound, I don't know if we can afford to do it," says Chute, noting that he had just put $1,000 worth of fuel in the boat that morning. "If it stays above $3, we can stock enough to make a go of it," he says, adding, "Last year was an exceptionally good year. I'm hoping to get half that many this year."
Six buyers were in Lubec on the first couple of days, and Chute observes that the catch limit and low catches are affecting the buyers, too. "They're not doing great. One was trying to get 60 boxes, which is one day's work at the plant. When I left there, he still needed 14 more."
Chute says the roe count has been good around Goose Island, at around 15%. "The roe looks good in them. The color's good," says Wright, noting that fishermen will drag where there are urchins with a higher roe percentage if they were limited in their catch.
Wright says that Whiting and Dennys bays, which open in December, should be good fishing this year, and he expects many boats will be there. "It will be a good little boost for them before Christmas up in that river. And the price is good in December, too."
Chute observes, "By that time, they might be so scarce we'll be glad we got it." However, he notes that the urchins in those bays have a low roe count, and he suggests that fishermen be allowed to move them to the Goose Island area, so the roe percentage could increase.
Whiting and Dennys bays will be open for fishing for only nine days, although that is five days more than last year. The bays had previously been closed for three years to allow the resource to be rebuilt.
High catches, low prices across border
The sea urchin season also began on October 1 in Lobster Fishing Area (LFA) 36, including Campobello. Dwight Allingham of Campobello says that catches have been good, with draggers averaging about 40 totes a day, which is the same as last year. Although they do not have a daily catch limit, there is a total allowable catch of 900 metric tonnes for the season, which runs until May 15.
However, the price, at $1.80 a pound for 10% roe count, is much lower than what Maine fishermen are receiving. There are only two buyers in the area, in Back Bay and near Letete. Allingham notes that Campobello fishermen are not allowed to take urchins into the U.S. to sell them. "We've got our hands tied on the price," he says.
Four boats have been dragging in the area around Friar's Bay to the Lubec Narrows. Allingham says the area is "pretty cleaned out" by the time the lobster fishing season opens on November 12. Fishermen will then switch over to lobstering.
There are 18 urchin licenses in LFA 36, with four licensed draggers and 14 licensed divers