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Monday, December 19, 2005

Hunting the Elusive Uni

(Two Boats in the Rockland Urching Fleet in the Early Eighties.)

It's not really elusive, nor is it much of a hunt.

I used to harvest sea urchins for their roe back when the price was a mere $.30 to $.40 per pound. We'd bring back a ton or more of urchins in order to make a day's pay. These were all diver harvested urchins, culled by hand on deck.

Except for the cold - urchin season is typically in winter -- the fishery has its good points. It's clean: It deals in live product, and there's no bait. Translation, no rotten smell. In fact, when the urchins come up, the smell is actually quite pleasing, a freshly aerated ocean smell, like when a perfect wave breaks into foam on a white sand beach.

The process works as follows: Captain or tender uses a skiff to follow his diver or divers, who carry one or more mesh bags, each one tied to a rope and buoy. When a bag is full, the diver signals the tender with a tug on the rope. Tender sees the buoy twitch and drives to the diver. Tender then drops another bag down where the diver is and hauls the full bag to the surface, where it gets pulled into the skiff and dumped into a fish tray. Tender's job is to take out the sub-legal size urchins and cull out shell hatch, sand, seaweed, and other bottom debris.

If you want to read a fictional story of urchin harvesting. a.k.a whore's egging, originally published in Offshore Magazine, click on the link here: Mother Lode.

Whore's eggin' wasn't a bad way to make a living from the sea. You'd get a few spines in your hands and fingers but they'd come out eventually. Day's were long, but you were home every night. Still had to load and unload 2000 to 3000 pounds of product by hand every fish day. Kind of a chore if you didn't have hydraulics, and many of us didn't. (On a day the boom winch at the wharf was broken, I tore a muscle in my shoulder lifting a tray of urchins over my head to the quay. It still bothers me.)

Back in the old days, buyers screwed with you a bit. They figured a typical Maine fishermen didn't know enough about the product to know what was good. In some instances, particularly early on, they were right. I remember another time, we got back in to learn the Emperor of Japan had died. Suddenly our product was worth zip. All of us drove our catches back out to our own secret spots (or what we thought was secret) and dumped the catch back into the sea, hoping we could return after the market stabilized and re-harvest everything. That year, the market never really came back.

Soon after I got out of the urchin business, the market swelled and the price rose to over $1.00 per pound. You do the math. Not a bad day's pay in winter if you're bringing home over a ton of product. Unfortunately, like every other unregulated fishery, as this one was for awhile, it didn't take long to decimate urchin populations. Within the span of three or four years, whore's eggin' in Maine came to a virtual halt. Urchins, for the most part, were gone.

It's starting to rebound. The spiny critters are showing up in some numbers, as are the boats and the characters who run them.

I think I'll stay on the sidelines this time around.


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