ON the watery first floor at Great Atlantic Seafood, Inc., rubber-booted workers methodically crack open, extract, and clean piles of fresh Maine sea urchin.
These round, prickly shelled animals, no bigger than tennis balls, have become an important export commodity here. During the cold winter months, in particular, divers and fishermen flock to the coast to scoop them off underwater rocks. The urchins are sold and exported to Japan where urchin eggs, or roe, are widely consumed.
This relatively new seafood industry in Maine has grown rapidly over the past six years. In 1987, fishermen landed 1.4 million pounds of sea urchins; by the end of 1993, the figure surged to almost 27 million pounds.
Most urchins were shipped live to Japan until a processing industry got under way two years ago. Now, at least six major urchin processors are based in Portland, while others have sprung up along the Maine coast. Processed Maine sea urchin can sell for between $10 to $40 a pound, says Lloyd Covens, co-owner of the Urchin Merchant, a processing plant in Portland.
Despite the industry's early success here in Maine, urchiners are worried about the future. The urchin population, which some say has peaked, may face a gradual decline. In addition, there are complaints about unfair competition from out-of-state plants and ineffective state regulations.
The urchin resource is overtaxed due to the increasing number of both experienced and amateur urchin fishermen, says Joe Mokry, a Maine urchin diving instructor. The state has licensed 1,900 divers and 500 dragger boats for sea urchining and that already is too much, he says.
Competing with out-of-state processors is another problem. Fred Hamilton, general manager at Great Atlantic Seafood, Inc., says Maine-based plants must compete with New York processors who hire illegal aliens to avoid high state labor costs.
``The New York processors come up here and actually rape the industry,'' claims Mr. Hamilton. ``We're talking about an industry out of New York, for example, that will harvest 30 [million to] 40 million pounds out of Maine in one year.''
Another concern is labor. For one thing, Maine workers' compensation rates are among the highest in the country. It is also hard to find people willing to do the hard and dirty work involved in processing, says Hamilton. White people in both California and Maine turn their noses up at such work, he says.
``The reason why, for example, you have out-of-state processors working in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York is they have the labor force they can draw upon and ... most of the workers they have are non-Caucasian and illegal to boot,'' he asserts.
Maine also must compete with other states and countries that supply sea urchin to the Japanese. Besides California, Oregon and Washington are suppliers, as are the countries of China, Japan, Russia, Mexico, North and South Korea, and Canada. Hamilton estimates Maine supplies about 10 percent of Japanese demand for sea urchin.
Besides competition, processors point to badly timed state closure regulations. Maine has banned urchin harvesting during May, June, and July in an effort to protect the urchins from overfishing.
But some urchiners claim that the state mandated the closure due to pressure from lobstermen who do their harvesting in the summer months. Lobstermen like to harvest urchins in the winter when they are not as busy. Urchin processors argue that the annual closure should take place three months earlier.
Mr. Mokry says the state's failure to regulate the industry effectively, allowing for what he calls unregulated development, also will mean business failures due to overuse of the resource.