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Green Gold Rush: What happened to Maine's once-robust sea urchin industry?

In the '90s Maine sea urchin value was second to lobster. Then they vanished. Now those who still hold their licenses fear they're the last of a generation.

Jack Molmud, Adam Paul

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Published: 11:52 AM EDT May 24, 2023
Updated: 2:26 PM EDT May 26, 2023

In the United States' easternmost city, you'll find Paul Cox and his crew working early on the water. In late winter, they're after a spikey, green, and otherwise inedible sea creature (besides the gonads): the green sea urchin.

Cox may be in his 60s, but he is considered on the younger side of sea urchin fishermen in Maine.

From December to March of every year, he puts on a dry suit and scuba gear and heads 40 to 60 feet under water off the coast of Eastport.

Alone and in often murky water that requires a flashlight, he scoops hundreds of pounds of sea urchin into yellow nets. His crew, Paul and Jevin, sort the urchin above water.

"I've always wanted to dive," Cox said. "Time means nothing under water. When you get down there, it's like you just began."

Credit: Jack Molmud
Paul Cox prepares to dive in Cobscook Bay off the coast of Eastport to harvest sea urchin. This time of year the water is near freezing.

The time of year the water is most clear is also the coldest, around 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside and a water temperature of around 34 in early March.

Cox said he started to dive for sea urchin in the '90s, not long before the state cut off any new licenses to prospective fishermen.

After the '90s, no one could get a new sea urchin license.

Now everyone who dives for urchin is in their 60s and 70s, with little hope on the horizon for new licenses seeing how the sea urchin has lost so much of its habitat because of climate change and invasive species.

Cox said if the fishery continues to shrink it will die forever.

"If we're not our low yet, then there is nothing we can do to bring them back," Cox said.

How did the fishery become so depleted? And is there any hope for it to become profitable for the state again?

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