ELLSWORTH (AP) – Sea urchin fishermen in Washington County are frustrated with a mandatory 30 percent cut in next year’s harvest that’s being imposed even though their fishery appears to be in good condition.

The fishermen voiced their concerns at a Saturday meeting held by the Maine Department of Marine Resources at Ellsworth Middle School.

Department officials explained that sea urchin stocks have been depleted in Hancock County, which falls in the same fishing management zone as Washington County. Similar declines are expected to occur in Washington County if harvests are not reduced.

Maine’s harvest of sea urchins, its second most valuable commercial fishery, has plummeted from 41.6 million pounds a decade ago to an estimated 6 million pounds this year.

At last month’s Fisherman’s Forum in Rockland, department Commissioner George LaPointe announced a 50 percent reduction in southern Maine’s sea urchin harvest. Stocks are more depleted in the southern part of the state.

Urchin eggs are highly sought after by the Japanese, and the spiny green mollusks were heavily fished in the early 1990s. Once urchins have been removed, an area converts to kelp beds, and it is difficult for urchins to regenerate, according to Margaret Hunter, resource scientist for the department.

So far, though, the stock declines have not hit Washington County, where this year’s landings are expected to total 3 million pounds. Hancock County is expected to finish the season next week with a harvest of just over 1 million pounds.

“The difficulty facing us is trying to manage Zone 2 which, in part, seems to be doing very well and, in part, is really in trouble,” Hunter said.

The meeting’s purpose was to recommend ways to achieve the 30 percent reduction. The only plan acceptable to the majority of attendees was one that used a variety of methods, including natural attrition and gear changes, to achieve a 17 percent reduction. A second plan to remove another 10 days from the urchin fishing season was opposed by all but four fishermen who voted.

Sea urchin fishermen in Zone 2 were limited to 94 fishing days this year, and the idea of further cutbacks did not sit well. John Wallace of Lubec said that between the weather and a boat breakdown, he fished a total of 35 days.

One idea that was mentioned by many at the meeting was dividing Zone 2, so that reductions in the harvest apply only to areas where the stock is depleted.

Hunter said the marine resources department does not have the authority to manage parts of the zone differently.

The recommendations developed Saturday will go to the Sea Urchin Zone Council, which must make a final recommendation to the marine resources department on how to achieve the cuts.

AP-ES-04-14-03 0216EDT

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