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MAINE HARVEST OF SEA URCHIN HAS HIT LIMIT

Maine has been landing urchins for 30 years, according to Philip Averill of the state Department of Marine Resources. But until five years ago it sold only 100,000 pounds or so, mostly to French, French-Canadian, and Italian markets where urchin roe is a traditional Christmas delicacy. Then Japan entered the market. In the 1987 calendar year, urchin ranked 29th in value among Maine's fisheries. In 1988 it ranked 14th, and last year around 9th. ``That growth is strictly because of Japanese demand,'' Mr. Averill says.

Now the growth potential of the urchin harvest has been reached, he says. ``Biologically, we're not even touching the resource.'' But only 10 percent of urchins have roe in a given year, and Maine lands all that do. The concern is not to harvest urchin that are worthless one year, because they could be valuable the next.

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Now that Japanese buyers have discovered Maine for urchin, they are also showing interest in its other seafood, including lobster, Averill says.