After the Gold Rush
The Maine coast has gone through more boom and bust cycles than Wall Street.
Everything Robert Odlin has, he owes to the sea urchin. “It’s been the bread and butter of my life,” says Odlin, of Scarborough, who figures he has spent a full year of his life underwater while diving for urchins over the past two decades. “Two houses, two boats, my trucks, trips to Africa and Chile — all came from urchin diving.”
Those were the good old days, though, when a diver could harvest urchins pretty much year-round and count on grossing a thousand dollars a day or more. The urchin-harvesting season in eastern Maine, where Odlin dives, lasts only forty-five days now, starting in either September or December, and even that is thirty-five days more than the season along the southern coast from Kittery to Rockland. Urchin harvester licenses have dropped from 2,725 in 1994 to only 459 in 2007, and industry insiders say only half of license holders are actively harvesting anymore. “It was the California Gold Rush,” recalls diver Brian Soper, of Cundys Harbor. “And then it ended.”
The Maine coast has gone through more boom and bust cycles than Wall Street, and the sea urchin is the latest example. Thanks to greed and lack of regulation in its early years, the urchin industry today is a staggering shadow of its high life in the mid-1990s. Reported urchin landings have gone from a peak of 41.6 million pounds in 1993 to less than 2.2 million pounds in 2007.
But the urchin is only the latest in a long line of fisheries that have been exploited to near or total extinction along the coast. Once, fishermen landed more cod in the waters around Mount Desert Island alone than the entire annual catch in the North Atlantic today. Now fishermen depend almost entirely on lobster, a crustacean that was once considered fit only for pigs. Humans have been working their way down the marine food chain for centuries, starting with whales and ending with a palm-sized spiny herbivore, the urchin. If the same process had occurred on land, humans today would be snacking on crows and cockroaches.
The sea urchin boom had its roots in two phenomena — the overfishing of cod and other top marine predators that had once kept urchin populations in check and the rise of Japan as a force in the Maine fish market.
By the 1960s, improved fishing techniques had essentially wiped out the cod along the Maine coast. Almost immediately, urchins moved into the vast kelp beds that had provided nursery areas for cod and other species. “If you talk to older fishermen, they’ll tell you there weren’t a lot of urchins along the coast in the 1960s,” says Robert Russell, a Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) researcher who conducts annual bottom surveys of urchin populations.
By the late 1970s, though, “urchins were a junk species, just a pest that clogged [lobster] traps,” recalls DMR urchin specialist Margaret Hunter, who has studied the fishery since 1996. The urchins would congregate in huge “herds” that would work their way across the bottom grazing on algae and seaweed. “They were incredibly populous,” Hunter explains. “Urchins really destroyed our kelp beds, which was not good for young lobster growth.”
The market for urchin roe was extremely limited — only 50,790 pounds were harvested in Maine in 1984 at an average price of eight cents a pound, and none at all in 1985 and 1986. Then the Japanese market arrived in Maine. “Sea urchins are an excellent example of the growing globalization of a fishery,” says Boris Worm, an internationally known marine scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “The market for them started after World War II in Japan, then [harvesting] moved to the rest of Asia and Australia before reaching the West Coast of the United States and Chile. In the 1980s it leapfrogged to the East Coast and Maine.”
The Japanese relish sea urchin roe, known as uni, but it wasn’t until overnight airfreight opened the Maine coast as a source that it became a general consumer item in Japan. “Japanese companies sent people to Maine to instruct fishermen how to collect and sort sea urchins,” Hunter points out. “They set up processing plants and air cargo routes. Before they found Maine, uni was an expensive specialty gourmet item. Afterward it became a supermarket product in Japan, which opened up a whole new demand for sea urchins.”
By 1991 Maine divers and draggers were harvesting 20.5 million pounds of sea urchins at fifty-four cents a pound, according to DMR figures. Longtime buyers like Jim Wadsworth of Friendship International in Camden say the true harvest number may have been double that. “We used to make a lot of money on urchins,” he remembers. “Japan was buying everything we could produce. New processors were opening in Gloucester [Massachusetts] and New York. Everyone needed hundreds of totes every day to meet the demand. There were a lot of new pick-up trucks parked by the docks in those days.”
Brian Soper says he started diving for urchins about twenty years ago after several years of working part-time as a scallop diver. “I would dive mornings from maybe nine to noon, and be out of the water in time to go to my full-time job in the afternoon” he says. “The first day I harvested urchins, I made $75. The second day, $150. By the end of the week, I was grossing $500 a day.”
In those early years, Soper remembers, urchins covered the bottom so thickly that he had to glue his mask to his wetsuit to protect his face from the spines. “[Harvesters} took everything — babies, old ones, low quality urchins, whatever was there,” he recalls. “There were so many you couldn’t sort them.” He did well enough that he and his wife purchased a wharf in Cundys Harbor and began buying urchins from other divers. “We had more than thirty other divers selling to us at one time,” he says.
“In the early years we were going seven days a week,” buyer Wadsworth recalls. “Everybody was tired all the time. We prayed for bad weather so we could take a couple of days off.”
Soper, who has been active in urchin conservation programs for years, was an original member of an early industry association that lobbied for tighter regulations — or any regulations — on the booming urchin business. “There were no rules in the early days; it was wide open,” he recalls. First a 150-day harvesting season was instituted, then size limits and licensing.
“The government stepped in too little and too late and with no enforcement,” says Odlin, who serves on DMR’s Sea Urchin Zone Council with Soper. “People got into the industry with no respect for the resource. It was rape and pillage there for a while.”
“I think agencies at the time were ill-prepared to deal with it,” says marine scientist Worm. “It was a nontraditional fishery that took everyone more or less by surprise. People didn’t have a good idea how to go about regulating it.”
“No one really knew anything about urchins,” Wadsworth agrees. “By the time we figured out what we should be doing, it was too late.”
Since peaking at 41.6 million pounds in 1993, urchin harvests have dropped steadily. Only extreme eastern Maine still has a sizable catch. “Urchin numbers have declined dramatically from west to east along the coast,” DMR’s Hunter says. “There’s still a pretty healthy fishery in Washington County. Its remoteness protected it from the first gold rush. But, of course, that’s where everyone goes to harvest them now, too.” Sea urchins last year were a $3.3-million industry in Maine, less than a tenth of the take in the mid-1990s.
Despite the drop in harvest pressure, the sea urchin has become yet another species that, once overfished, has not made a comeback. “Sea urchins are the most recent collapse of an accelerating string of collapses that have left the Gulf of Maine with a remarkably [impoverished] ecosystem,” notes Robert S. Steneck, a professor of oceanography, marine biology, and marine policy at the University of Maine.
Steneck calls it “fishing down the food web,” and it isn’t limited to Maine. “What we see on our coast is a tiny part of a much larger problem,” he says in an e-mail. Marine biologists estimate that 29 percent of the world’s currently fished species are in collapse, while commercial fishing has reduced populations of every species of large fish on theglobe, including cod, by more than 90 percent.
“Research has shown that once you start unraveling that web, you see a lot of unexpected and often unpleasant results,” says Worm. “We’re only beginning to understand how transforming human impact can be.”
In the case of the sea urchin, its food is fighting back. The heavy harvesting of the 1990s allowed kelp and Irish moss to reestablish themselves on the bottom. Seaweed beds increased from 71 percent of the seafloor in 2001 to 88 percent in 2003, according to a DMR study, demonstrating their ability to reclaim the bottom given the opportunity. But populations of Jonah crabs and green crabs, avid sea urchin predators that quickly colonized the seaweed beds, also doubled and redoubled.
“The crabs create a habitat that’s difficult for new urchins to survive in,” Wadsworth explains. “There are a lot of predators in that shag carpet on the seafloor that eat little urchins before they can get started. Guess you could say that’s our fault.”
Marine biologists have experimented with seeding adult sea urchins in seaweed beds in southern Maine. In every case, the crabs made short work of the new food source.
“Southern Maine has been effectively closed for a number of years simply because there aren’t a lot of urchins there anymore,” DMR’s Russell points out, “and recovery is not taking place.” Spots that haven’t been harvested in eight to ten years, with healthy kelp beds, still have no sea urchins in them.
Scientists call it “an alternate stable state,” and it may take many years for sea urchins to reestablish themselves in it. “I’m never going to see a drastic increase in sea urchins on the coast of Maine in my lifetime,” says Soper, 50. “I think they’re returning. I’m seeing them out there all the time. But they’ll never be like they were.”
These days the major sea urchin sources have shifted to Russia, Maritime Canada, and Chile. Wadsworth estimates that “maybe a couple of hundred people” are still active in the industry in Maine. “Now we’re getting reports that Japan isn’t eating uni the way it used to,” he adds. “The older folks who were the major market are dying, and the younger generation doesn’t like it so much.”
Boris Worm at Dalhousie University points out that the lessons of the sea urchin experience remain largely ignored in many quarters. “I’m seeing fishermen moving aggressively into sea cucumbers, deep clams, and other species that were once as ignored as the sea urchin,” he says.“We have to reach a balance,” says Odlin. “Sea urchins have gone through boom and bust periods on their own for a long time. Then we came along and disrupted the natural cycle. We can’t keep doing that.”
- By: Jeff Clark