ORLAND — There were some dissenters, but a majority of the Sea Urchin Council voted in favor of staying with the existing 120-day harvest season.
The council formed its position during its monthly meeting at the Orland Town Hall Thursday night. The council is made up of urchin harvesters, buyers and sellers.
Although the council is committed to the 120-day season, members want to hear from people in the industry before setting the dates of the 1998-99 season. About 1,500 people are licensed by the state to harvest or sell sea urchins.
“There will be some hearings around the state, and the council will hash things over before it makes its recommendation to the state on the dates,” said council Secretary Marie Varian of Sebasco after the meeting.
Varian said the Department of Marine Resources has the final say on the dates of the urchin season. DMR officials will hold a series of public information sessions in coming weeks before setting the dates.
Council member Brian Soper of Cundys Harbor on Casco Bay pushed for a longer season. Soper said rough winter weather sometimes prevented harvesters from venturing out to sea on fishing days. Although Soper advocated more flexibility on fishing days, those supporting the 120-day season reminded him of the need for urchin conservation.
“Is the catch per unit going up? asked Jim James of the Sea Urchin Harvesters Association. “No. It’s still going down. I can’t believe you want to add more days to the season.”
Urchin harvesting is conducted in two zones, each with its own rules and seasons. Zone 1 consists of the waters west of the Penobscot River and Zone 2 covers the waters to the east. For 1997-98, the Zone 1 season ran from September to February. Zone 2 has been open since October and will close April 24. Urchins are harvested by divers or by draggers.
Urchin harvesters earn between 50 and 70 cents per pound for their product, 99 percent of which is shipped to Japan. When the economy in Japan falters, as it has in recent months, the urchin industry feels the pinch.
“Japan’s economy took a hit so we kind of took a hit,” council member Blair Pines said. “When Japan sneezes, Maine gets a cold.”
Up until two years ago, the urchin harvesting season covered 240 days. However, the sudden decline of urchins from the ocean floor of Penobscot Bay prompted the harvest window to be halved for 1997-98. Scientists looking into the decline predicted a dire future unless harvest pressure was reduced.
“I think this is an industry with a lot of potential but this is also an industry in a lot of trouble,” Dr. Robert Steneck of the University of Maine’s Darling Research Center said during last month’s Maine fishermen’s forum.
Steneck and biologist Robert Vadas of UM’s School of Marine Sciences attended Thursday’s session and reiterated their concerns about depleting urchin stocks.
“I think 120 days is a compromise from my point of view,” Steneck told the council. “I realize that everybody wants to make a living, but the signs are not good.”
Heeding those warnings, the council also agreed to discuss the possibility of closing certain areas to fishing in order to subject them to scientific study. While the council took no formal stance on the matter, council members agreed to raise the issue during the planned public hearings.
“I’ve talked to a lot of divers from Kennebunk to Jonesport and I haven’t heard anybody say they are not in favor of closing areas and letting the scientists have at it,” Rob Odlin, president of the Maine Urchin Divers Association, informed the council.