Small, slow growing urchin variety could affect commercial harvest

ORONO, Maine -- The discovery of a type of slow growing sea urchin that never attains legal size for harvesting in Maines coastal waters has been reported by a team of scientists led by Robert Vadas, marine biologist at the University of Maine. If the finding is supported by further research, it suggests that harvesting legal size urchins could cause a shift in the urchin population toward a non-harvestable stock.

The report was published in the scientific journal Ecological Monographs in February. Vadas is a professor in the UMaine Department of Biological Sciences and School of Marine Sciences. Co-authors include Barry D. Smith of the Canadian Wildlife Service, Brian Beal of the University of Maine at Machias and Tim Dowling, a former UMaine graduate student now of Tenants Harbor. The Island Institute of Rockland assisted by providing ship time.

Worldwide, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that fishermen harvested about 262 million pounds of urchins in 1999.

In Maine, the urchin harvest is down considerably from its 1993 peak but still brings in significant revenue. In 2000, harvesters landed about 12 million pounds of urchins worth more than $17 million. The 1993 record of 41 million pounds was worth about $26 million, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Vadas and his colleagues began planning the research in the mid-1990s. "Our original idea was to use a new technique that I had brought back from Norway for determining the age of sea urchins," says Vadas. "We wanted to understand basic aspects of urchin biology, such as their life expectancy, how fast they grow and when they reach reproductive age. Finding two separate groups within the population was a real surprise to us."

The scientists collected urchins from carefully selected spots in two locations along the Maine coast, the Schoodic Peninsula just east of Ellsworth and Allen Island southwest of Port Clyde. After tallying

Contact: Robert Vadas
University of Maine

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