Maine's sea urchins — spiky creatures valued for their tasty roe called "uni" — have been fetching high prices since the start of the harvest season in September, the Ellsworth American reported.
But divers and draggers are enjoying high prices only because the quality of roe is low in urchins harvested elsewhere in the world, Chuon Muth, an urchin processor from Scarborough, said at a recent meeting of the Sea Urchin Zone Council.
The urchin fishery is regulated by Maine's Department of Marine Resources. According to the agency's preliminary information, the mean price for urchins harvested in the eastern part of the state was $3.23 per pound, with draggers earning as much as $4.02 per pound and divers $3.54 in recent weeks.
The harvest season peaks in the winter, and ends in March, according to Maine Sea Grant. Maine's sea urchin fishery experienced a boom and bust cycle in the 1990s, but has evened out in recent years, although populations are doing better in eastern Maine. Sixty percent of fishermen collect urchins by diving and collecting them in bags. The rest use drags to scoop urchins off the sea floor.
High-quality uni has a sweet, ocean-like taste and a smooth, buttery texture; it's served fresh and uncooked. The primary market for the roe is Japan. The Ellsworth American reported the Maine fishery, about 1.5 million pounds live weight in 2016, represents a minuscule proportion of the worldwide harvest. Japan and Russia have the largest fisheries but, according to Muth, recently the quality of the urchins coming from those fisheries has been poor.
Earlier this year, Maine's urchin industry won a victory with the unanimous passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a bill, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin, that streamlines the inspection process for the sea urchin fishery.
Processors buy urchins harvested in Maine and Canada and process them in Maine. For now, urchins from Canada are inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when coming into the state. After they are processed, all urchins — regardless of where they were caught — are again inspected before being exported. The bill will end inspections of exports. In a statement, Poliquin called it "a big win for Maine jobs."
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