Back in the 1970s, I spent a summer as a mate on a lobster boat off Nova Scotia. With cold weather, choppy seas, and the physical drudgery of heaving around traps, the job entailed many less-than-pleasant duties, but my least favorite was dealing with green sea urchins -- which the lobstermen referred to as “whore’s eggs.”
Several dozen of them could fill a trap. Lobsters had the good sense to avoid a small place jam-packed with pincushion-like creatures, so the mate’s job was to reach in with his hand, extract the urchins, and toss them overboard. In addition to being a nuisance, urchins wreaked environmental havoc, completely covering entire swaths of the sea floor and destroying kelp beds. Biologists considered them to be indestructible.
I would have laughed and said, “from your mouth to God’s ear,” had anyone had told me that within 25 years, sea urchins in the North Atlantic would become a sushi delicacy -- so valuable and hotly pursued by commercial divers and boats dragging scoops across the bottom that they would eventually become overfished and their numbers would crash [pdf].
But that’s precisely what happened. By the mid-1990s, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the state had nearly 3,000 licensed commercial sea urchin fishermen, harvesting 40 million pounds of urchins worth more than $30 million. The once unsalable “bycatch” had become the state’s second most valuable fishery after lobsters.
Never underestimate the power of human appetites to decimate an aquatic resource. Even during the sea urchin fishery’s peak years, there were signs of trouble. Urchins began disappearing from areas where they were once plentiful and catch limits were put in place. But to no avail. By 2010, the harvest had dropped to 2.6 million pounds.
Belatedly, Maine has begun to develop a plan for resurrecting the urchin population, a task made more difficult because in order to successfully reproduce, the animals have to live in dense colonies. Another difficulty is that the returning kelp, which the urchins once fed upon, provides habitat for crabs, which prey on urchins.
Larry Harris of the University of New Hampshire heads a panel of biologists, urchin harvesters, and regulators that is designing the program. They hope to have it in place by this fall.
A testament to how far the numbers of sea urchins have fallen is the group’s modest goal of eventually restoring the fishery to one-third of what it once was.