Management Plan in the Works for Urchin Fishery

by Laurie Schreiber

The harvest of the green sea urchin in Maine is the subject of much debate between fishermen and managers. It boomed, cycled and in 2011 was at it lowest since it began in the 1980’s. NOAA/Dr. Dwayne Meadows

The Sea Urchin Zone Council (SUZC) has agreed to help to draft a fishery management plan for the state’s sea urchin fishery.

SUZC chairman Bill Sutter said it would be a good idea for the industry to get onboard with the idea of drafting a plan, because otherwise the state will do it unilaterally.

“I would much prefer to be a part of the process than to be an observer,” Sutter said. “The world is run by those who show up.”

Sutter’s comments came after the SUZC heard a report from Department of Marine Resources (DMR) marine resource coordinator Trisha DeGraaf on a DMR initiative to write management plans for the state’s fisheries.

The recommendation for fishery management plans came from a “top-to-bottom” review of the DMR that was performed under the authority of former DMR commissioner Norman Olsen, DeGraaf said.

The DMR plans to write a management plan for each of the state’s fisheries, including lobster, scallops, shrimp and urchins, said DeGraaf.

“At this time, we have the components of what could be a management plan, but we have no all-encompassing plan in place,” DeGraaf said of the urchin fishery.

DeGraaf said the first step will for the SUZC to draft a discussion document regarding the plan’s possible goals and objectives, to take to the public for input.

“A lot of the work has been done. It just needs to be put together,” she said.

DeGraaf said the DMR is starting with urchins because it is the only fishery that happens entirely within state waters; the other fisheries are managed in conjunction with other states and with federal agencies.

“We have control over developing that management plan,” she said. “We don’t have to consult with other states.”

DeGraaf said that one of the questions to be considered is where fishermen want to see the fishery in 10 years.

One man had several topics to include in the discussion document.

“Divers want a call-in system so we can be safe and go diving on calm days,” he said. “We want to be able to take apprentices. And, potentially, people who started this fishery, there should be a one-time opportunity to pass down our licenses to our children if we want. That gives the people who started the industry a little extra something. And people who don’t want to hand it down to their children should have a one-time right to be able to sell their licenses.”
In other business:

• Fishermen commented on the effects of a DMR rule, implemented on August 1, 2010, that requires current cardio-pulmonary response and first aid documentation in order to renew a fishing license or obtain a new license.

A couple of fishermen said they’ve had trouble getting DMR staffers to consult the documentation they had on file which showed that their CPR and first aid cards were still valid.
SUZC member Dean Norris said that as a harvester who has taken CPR classes for two decades and has been involved in an emergency situation when he attempted to revive a diver through CPR and first aid—the regulation was unnecessary.

“There are far more important things to do for the safety of divers than this,” Norris said.

Primarily, he said, the DMR should allow harvesters to have flexibility in which days they may fish. Currently, fishermen must harvest urchins according to a schedule of specific days of the week; the schedule is worked out each year, prior to the opening of the fishing season.

“If you really want us to be more safe, if it’s blowing a gale, then let us skip Monday and fish on Thursday instead,” he said, by way of example.

Another man suggested that the fishery use a call-in system instead of a schedule, in order to give fishermen flexibility as to when they fish, while also allowing the DMR to track the number of days they’ve fished.

Safety training became a requirement for divers and tenders in 1994. Until 1993, the dive-related fatality number for the scallop and urchin fisheries became an average of seven divers per year, primarily from lack of dive certification and no safety education, according to information from the DMR. In 2000, there were more deaths in the commercial fishing industry than in any other sector of Maine’s economy, the DMR said. From January 2000 to January 2001 alone, 10 fishermen died in six separate incidents, ending an eight-year period in which 34 Maine fishermen lost their lives, the DMR said.

The DMR said safety-training requirements for divers and tenders were intended to provide basic safety training. Sutter said the SUZC would keep the issue on its agenda for future meetings.

• Some fishermen said they would like the maximum size limit for the legal harvest of sea urchins to be greater than 3 inches.

“The big ones are there and they’re getting thrown back and they’re getting wasted,” said Zone 1 diver James Campbell.

The minimum legal size is 2- 1/16 inches, as measured by the diameter of the shell, and the maximum size is 3 inches.

SUZC member Mick Devin said the maximum size limit is intended to protect larger urchins which, he said, spawn many more eggs by orders of magnitude than do smaller urchins.

“There are a lot of animals that, as they get larger, they produce many more eggs,” Devin said. “Urchins are an example of that.”

On the ocean floor, he said, the connection between large urchins and larvae might not be immediately apparent because larvae float in the water column and get carried off on currents before they settle to the bottom.

Campbell agreed that there should be a maximum limit, but said that increasing the size limit by 1/16 or 1/8 inch would still leave plenty of larger urchins.

But several other fishermen said that the quality of roe in larger urchins is questionable. And they said that they haven’t been finding a consistent presence of large urchins where they fish.

“Keep it the way it is now,” said SUZC member Dean Norris. “If we harvest 1/16 inch bigger, I think we’ll work through the bigger urchins in a couple of years and they’ll be gone and we won’t be any better off. We’ll drop biomass down and the state will want us to cut our effort.”


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