Maine Markets Urchin in Japan

PERSIMMON OF THE SEA

SPEAKING of raw sea urchin roe, Tim Welch says, ``I don't think I'd sit down and have a big plate of it by any means.'' But the New Englander is plenty enthusiastic about selling the spiny seabed dwellers to the Japanese. They pay up to $100 a pound for the roe, or eggs, which have been described as tasting like like oysters, persimmons, or salted honeydew melon.

During the season ended in March, Mr. Welch's company, Sea Otter Fisheries in Bremen, Maine, acted as broker for 1 million pounds of Maine urchin.

The West Coast states, Alaska, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire also harvest the cold-water creatures. Maine's 8.4-million-pound catch is dwarfed by California's 40 million pounds, but fishing for urchins is still ``a tremendous industry for the northeast during the winter months,'' Welch says, because there's a lull in other kinds of fishing.

The value of all Maine fisheries landings last year was $120 million, of which urchin was worth $3.6 million. Even if it won't balance the United States $50 billion trade deficit with Japan, ``that's not a drop in the bucket. That's big bucks,'' says Philip Averill, director of the fisheries technology service at Maine's Department of Marine Resources. Because of packing and shipping, the value to the state economy is five to seven times the landed value.

However, Welch says more capital and government regulation are needed to make the industry viable over the long run. ``Getting financing has been a joke,'' he says. Mr. Averill adds: ``Banks aren't financing anything nowadays. Banks are going belly up in the state of Maine.''

Welch would like to process more of the urchin here, allowing him to sell a more valuable product and eliminate nine-tenths of the shipping weight.

``My biggest concern with the East Coast,'' Welch says, ``is that they won't regulate the industry properly.'' Many brokers got into the urchin business to get rich quickly, he says. Their divers collected urchin that were too small and shipped them too slowly, so that in Tokyo a lot went straight from the cargo door to the trash.

This has given East Coast urchin something of a bad name, Welch says. The Japanese can and do buy from Australia, South Korea, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the 68 urchin brokers working in Maine last September, mostly novices, were out of business by March.

Averill notes that the urchin harvesting industry has requested regulations to limit the season and harvesting methods. Concern about waste and about Maine's image in Japan prompted the action, he says.

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