Disappearing Urchins on Maine Coast, Seen Statistically and First Hand
Over a few summers back in the 1980s I had the first-hand experience of visiting Tenants Harbor and clambering about on the rocky Maine shore. A friend of my mother’s had a cabin on the coast there and let our family use it for one week of the year. We brought an aquarium tank, filled it with water from the ocean, found what we could and put it in the aquarium to watch. We pulled out a fair number of hermit crabs, rock crabs, snails and sea stars, but what I remember most were the sea urchins. The sea urchins were everywhere at the edge of the water; if I leaned over a rock at low tide and moved my hand along the underside, just about every time I’d feel the stubby little prickles, peel a bit, and… ah, a green sea urchin sitting on my hand.
Since moving to Maine earlier this summer, I’ve visited a number of harbors and coves and tried the same technique, with not one urchin to be found. I haven’t seen any urchin shells, either. As I poked from place to place my initial thoughts that perhaps this harbor had polluted water, or that spot had unfavorable currents, gave way to the thought that perhaps there just weren’t any urchins around. A visit to the exact spot at Tenants Harbor where 25 years ago so many urchins could be found confirmed it. I couldn’t find a single urchin there, not even at the lowest tide of the month.
A little research shows that this a trend noticed by many other people. In the past year, Down East Magazine and Brunswick’s Times Record have published two feature articles that trace the crash in Maine urchin populations to two forces. First, cod were overfished in the Gulf of Maine, removing a predator of young urchins and allowing urchin populations to boom (what I witnessed in the mid-1980s). Second, appetites for urchin roe rocketed among sushi lovers in Japan. As sushi became worldwide yuppie food, demand for urchins rose further, and sea urchin harvesters in Maine made a lot of money by harvesting a lot of sea urchins:
That peak you see there is 18,881 metric tons of sea urchins removed from the Maine coast in 1993. There’s a lot of coast in the state of Maine, to be sure, but 18,881 metric tons is a whole heckuva lot. With urchins overharvested, landings have fallen to 989 metric tons in 2009… an amount that is still over 500 times the harvest of sea urchins from Maine in 1981. The number of urchin divers and bottom draggers participating in the harvest has crashed, too, from a high of 2,725 divers and draggers in 1994 to a low of 82 divers and draggers in 2008.
I don’t expect to find any urchins on the coast of Maine any time soon.