At a meeting of the Sea Urchin Zone Council earlier this month, some Zone 1 harvesters said they should be able to fish more than the 10 days they have been assigned each year since 2004.

The harvesters said that scientists and managers with the state Department of Marine Resources have compiled the data they need to see that the resource can sustain more fishing. Expressing anger, they  said the DMR has nevertheless ignored the data, to the detriment of the harvesters’ ability to make a living.

But DMR scientist Margaret Hunter said that diver surveys of the resource and data collection from fishermen have failed to yield enough evidence that the resource could sustain a higher fishing effort.

“There is,” responded James Campbell, a Zone 1 diver. “There’s only 25 of us. It’s a no-brainer. Do you rely specifically on scientific information, or do you ever hear us? I’m a fisherman. I just want to go to work.”

The coast of Maine is divided into two management zones for the urchin fishery. The division line between Zone 1 and Zone 2 occurs in Penobscot Bay. Along the western half of the coast — York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, and a portion of Knox counties make up Zone 1. To the east — Hancock, Washington, and the other portion of Knox counties make up Zone 2.

Fishermen in Zone 1 are allowed 10 harvesting days; those in Zone 2 are allowed 45 days. The Zone 1 fishery takes place from September through January. The Zone 2 fishery occurs from September through March. Each of those timeframes is divided into “early season” and “late season,” and hand-harvesters and draggers must choose between them.

According to Hunter, there has been no significant long-term improvement in stock conditions in either zone since 2004.

But fishermen said they have observed that urchins are doing well in some spots. They said they wanted those observations incorporated in the DMR’s assessment of the resource — potentially in the interest of allowing fishermen more harvesting days.

“By your data, we had 8.4 million pounds [of urchin biomass] in Zone 1 in 2010,” said Zone 1 diver Brian Preney. “We only harvested 102,000 pounds. That’s 1.2 percent of what you said is out there. And Maggie Hunter takes that number and says we can’t have any more effort. There’s no reason why the DMR, using the survey data, won’t let us have more days, but yet they won’t. So I don’t see the value of the survey if they’re not going to use the data properly.”

Preney was referring to the dive survey that has been conducted by the DMR every spring since 2001. The dive survey is one of several programs the DMR has in place to monitor and assess the urchin resource and fishery, in an attempt to understand the status of the resource and the impact of the evolving suite of fishing restrictions.

A commercial sea urchin port sampling program, which involves dockside interviews and sample collection, was initiated during the 1994-1995 fishing season. That program involves interviews and sampling conducted by the DMR at buying stations along the coast.

Also up and running since the 2010-2011 season is a harvester logbook program, which collects landing data from Zone 1 harvesters.

The DMR’s monitoring programs have been set up over a period of time that has also marked the steady decline of the fishery.

The fishery got its start in 1987, when a market for Maine sea urchin roe developed in Japan and a valuable fishery rapidly developed. Previously, urchins were considered a nuisance species.

In the early years, the urchin harvesting season was year-round. Participation in the fishery reached its peak in 1994, when 2,725 licenses were issued to divers and draggers, who harvested 38 million pounds of urchins valued at $33 million that year.

Concern that the urchin resource was starting to show signs of overfishing prompted management actions by the Maine legislature and the DMR to restrict the fishery beginning in 1995. The Sea Urchin Zone Council, comprised of harvesters, dealers and independent scientists, was established to advise the managers.

Since then, despite a limit on the number of harvesting licenses, a reduced season, the establishment of two exclusive fishing zones, a minimum size limit of 2-1/16 inches and a maximum size limit of 3 inches, the urchin population has continued to decline, mainly because of fishing, according to the DMR.

In the early to mid-1990s, sea urchins became scarce along Maine’s southern coast, as the most accessible beds from Kittery to Casco Bay were fished out. The decline then spread eastward, to the Boothbay, Rockland and Stonington areas, evident from landings records and dockside interviews with harvesters, according to the DMR. The number of licenses steadily declined, as have landings.

By 2000-2001, landings were at 11.8 million pounds. In 2004-2005, landings were at 3.8 million pounds. In 2004, the fishery was closed to new entrants, which means that no new licenses have been available and the number of fishermen has been shrinking due to attrition.

By the 2003-2004  season, most harvesters statewide were given 94 days to fish; Zone 1 draggers received 84 days.

But in 2004-2005, the season length was much reduced — Zone 1 harvesters received just 10 days to fish and Zone 2 harvesters received 45 days — and has remained so.

And yet, despite the reduction in effort, subsequent surveys have shown that abundance in most regions has continued to decline, according to the DMR.

In 2010-2011, landings dropped to their lowest total in 25 years, with 2.3 million pounds statewide. Of that, Hunter said, Zone 2 took by far the most, at more than 2.1 million pounds, with Hancock County taking 800,000 pounds and Washington County 1.3 million pounds. Harvesters in Zone 1 took 184,000 pounds.

Currently, 373 harvesters have licenses, according to preliminary data as of Jan. 3, 2012. Many divers are reaching the upper limit of age and physical ability to dive, Hunter said.

According to the DMR, attempts to understand the causes for the decline have been complicated by an urchin die-off in the Midcoast area during 1999-2001, possibly due to a parasitic infection triggered by unusually warm water temperatures. In the early 2000s, a boom in populations of crabs, which eat urchins, has also likely hindered urchin recovery. Urchin abundance has been consistently lower in Zone 1 than Zone 2 since 2001, according to the DMR.

DMR scientist Robert Russell said the dive survey has been helpful in understanding the status of the resource. But, he said, the survey could potentially be improved through the cooperation of fishermen.

Russell helped to design the survey and has performed it from its beginning in 2001. The survey divides the state’s coastline into nine regions. Each year, 11 dive sites have been chosen randomly in each region. In addition, five fixed (sentinel) dive sites in each region have been visited each year, and two fixed dive sites recommended by industry members in each region have also been visited. A video camera survey conducted in deeper sites during 2001-2004 was discontinued in 2005 because of problems with the camera cable, and a lack of sea urchins found at the deeper sites in the six westernmost regions.

Russell said the dive survey has had little buy-in from harvesters who, he said, don’t want surveyors to dive on productive urchin beds. But, he said, it’s important to understand the state of the resource both in non-fishing and fishing areas.

“We need to know what’s on bottom through the year,” he said.

The survey, he said, involves hand-picking among organisms in 1-meter-square areas as measured by sampling frames called “quadrats.”

Over the past decade, he said, surveyors have hand-picked through 25 acres.

“When you look at the state as a whole, it’s nothing,” Russell said of the acreage. “But we look at trends. We have sentinel sites we look at every year, and random sites. Some random sites have been phenomenal. Some places you’d think would be good, are not. We have to do enough quadrats in an area to be able say, with some level of confidence, there are about this many urchins in this area.”

Russell said that, although fishermen may find plenty of urchins on particular patches, the survey provides a broader look of the resource as a whole.

“We have to have a data stream here. We need a picture of what’s on the bottom from year to year,” he said. “We have to make sure that’s a source of data that’s not based on fishing practices.”

Marcus Jones, who has assisted with the dive survey for the past four years, said that, as a harvester, he was previously skeptical of the survey’s value.

“I was one of those guys going, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s never been urchins there. Why are you diving there?’” Jones said.

Jones said that, when he began to help with the survey, he began to understand the reasoning behind the selection of sampling sites. And, he said, the lack of urchins on sites where they might have been expected has been striking.

“If the urchins were plentiful, they would be everywhere,” Jones said. “We find urchins in some spots, but where are they everywhere else?”

At this point, said Jones, the survey is mostly providing a picture of the future of the resource. That’s because tiny urchins are now showing up at many sampling sites, he said. In addition, samplers are starting to see more of the bigger urchins – 3 inches or more – that are important for spawning. Previously, he said, scientists were concerned that all larger urchins were being harvested.

But some fishermen said the DMR has failed to use any of the positive information coming from the survey toward the benefit of harvesters.

Preney said he did not have anything against the survey, and he said he also promoted the use of harvester logbooks in an effort to show fishery managers that a higher rate of catch would be viable, particularly with the low number of divers now remaining in the zone.

DMR marine resource coordinator Trisha DeGraaf said the DMR wanted to know how to make the survey “better for you. How can we take that survey and make it serve you by helping you guys get more days? But we’re not going to just hand out more days. We want it to be based on science. The governor has stated he wants all fisheries to be sustainably managed and he wants to make science-based decisions.”

Preney said the DMR has been acting contrary to those goals – by neglecting the science, a situation that has cost fishermen extra fishing days.

At its April 2011 meeting, the Sea Urchin Zone Council unanimously voted to recommend a 2011-2012 season for Zone 1 of 20 days. But the DMR went to public hearing with a proposal for 10 days.

“So the issue is, the advice of this council was completely disregarded by the DMR,” said Sea Urchin Zone Council chairman Bill Sutter.

Several fishermen said that fishing alone was not to blame for the continued lack of urchins. They said that crabs, which predate on urchins, are also responsible, as well as warming sea temperatures and paramoeba invasions, which have been shown to cause mass urchin mortality.

But Russell said that fishing is also part of the equation.

“You can’t ignore the fact that you have a multi-million-pound fishery,” Russell said.

Russell said of the urchins, “If they’re gone, they’re gone. It doesn’t matter if nature took them or if you took them. This is a count.”

“I’m happy enough with the survey,” said Preney. But, he said, “I think it’s woefully understating the biomass. With the numbers you’ve got, it argues our case. I believe Maggie Hunter is most responsible for shooting down our 10 extra days for next year.”

Addressing Hunter, Preney said, “You’ve never publicly refuted the data in my claim. Given that same information for 2011, would you again try to stop us from getting more days?”

“The number of days is based in part on the status of the resource,” responded Hunter. “We have not seen evidence — and we do rely heavily on the survey — that the status of the resource in Zone 1 has improved. Until we see significant improvement — and I’m not talking about one year where the survey goes up; it’s going to have to be something where the survey is sustained over several years — as a scientist, I cannot recommend increasing fishing effort unless the status of the stock improves, and we haven’t seen any evidence of improvement.”

Hunter said that, if the DMR had not had the survey to go by, the agency might have closed the fishery all together.

A number of fishermen expressed anger with Hunter’s statements, prompting Sutter to gavel them down several times.

“The survey data says we’re catching 1.2 percent of the urchins on the bottom,” said Preney. “What more improvement are you looking for?”

“Why don’t we get more than 1.2 percent?” said another man. “If you’ve given us 1.2 percent, why not more? Why don’t we get at least 2 or 2-1/2 percent? That would give us 20 days at least.”

Preney said that a take of up to 4 or 5 percent would be sustainable for the biomass, and would provide six extra fishing days.

Sea Urchin Zone Council member Ingrid Bengis said the issues that surround the number of fishing days are complicated.

“It’s not the scientists against the fishermen. It’s not the fishermen against the scientists,” said Bengis. “And that’s the way it’s lining up. There’s anger. There’s hostility. It doesn’t accomplish anything.”

Hunter asked for input as to whether to continue the logbook program, which will sunset this May; and how to improve the survey in order to incorporate the additional information provided by fishermen. She said that fishermen would have to be able to provide information in a format that is usable, and that is organized and consistent year after year.

With regard to the logbook program, Preney said he supported it as a way to back up fishermen’s claims that the level of the biomass merits more fishing days.

“And since the DMR data wasn’t showing enough information to give us more days, we said, ‘Well, we’ll show you what we’re getting and that will help us show you that we’re getting more urchins than we used to, and the urchins are coming back. And just because you can’t find them in your survey, we can.’ So I was a proponent of getting that through,” Preney said.

The harvesters’ information about urchin abundance, Preney said, is more valid than the idea of researchers “throwing a quadrat on the bottom to see how many urchins there are,” which he called “absolutely ludicrous.”

Hunter said that data collection by harvesters, dealers and the DMR’s dockside samplers can result in discrepancies. The day-to-day handling of the harvest can make it hard to track, she said. For example, she said, harvesters might sell “totes” full of product at the dock to several buyers on a single day.

“It’s hard to keep track, even when you’re right there,” she said.

Hunter added that, essentially, the DMR is working with three different pictures of the fishery — harvester, dealer and dockside observer reports.

“It doesn’t mean it’s all garbage. It means I have to present all three to you,” Hunter said.

“So it’s not a reliable source,” said Campbell. “The landing reports are great if they’re accurate, but if they’re not accurate, they’re useless…. and you people are going to go out and use that information.”

“And we get penalized,” said another fisherman.

Bengis said the issue is further complicated because there may be disparities even in a single tote, because a harvester might put his best product on top. Nevertheless, Bengis said, the aggregate of reports will lend itself to some level of accuracy.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not valid or viable. It’s just means it’s complicated,” said Bengis.

Sutter said the Sea Urchin Zone Council would remand the issues around the logbook program and the dive survey to the Council’s research subcommittee.

Jones said he supported the idea of continuing the logbook program.

“Remember that, before, it was like throwing a dart at that green curtain,” Jones said, pointing to a large stage curtain that was in the room. “You didn’t know where to aim for. You didn’t have a clue….The logbooks painted at least a spot on the curtain. It gave the DMR and everybody at least something to start from instead of a huge, blank curtain. If you want to paint the inside of your glasses black and say, ‘I’m not going to listen’ – the industry isn’t going anywhere without their [the DMR’s] help.”

“I don’t need the state to tell me nothing,” said Sea Urchin Zone Council member Adam Johns. “I know more about the ocean than the DMR will ever know. Basically, we have a sustainable fishery with the right amount of licenses and a moratorium on it and a management plan already in place.”