ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine’s Scallop Advisory Council is recommending that the Department of Marine Resources fine-tune the boundaries where scallop fishing will be prohibited so that fishermen are less severely affected but the overall amount of closed territory will not change.
Because of what they have said is a steep decline in the number of scallops in Maine’s coastal waters, state fishery regulators announced last month they were closing six large sections of the Maine coast to scallop harvesting during the second half of the winter fishing season, which is scheduled to run from Feb. 25 through the end of March. DMR officials had announced they were closing the entire coast to scallop fishing — which prompted a strong outcry from Maine’s fishing community — but changed their minds after they discovered they could order emergency spot closures along the coast.
More than 50 people attended the advisory council’s meeting Friday afternoon at Ellsworth City Hall to weigh in on the issue and to make recommendations on how the closed areas could be adjusted before they go into effect later this month. Though members of the council made it clear they were there only to accept specific suggestions about where scalloping should not be allowed, many in attendance criticized the decision to pursue closures at all.
Donald Tozier of Hancock said the department is making all fishermen keep logbooks about their fishing effort and catch, but the agency decided to close some fishing grounds before it even reviewed the fishermen’s data.
“They’re arguing about something they haven’t researched,” Tozier said during a break in the meeting. “I don’t think the closures are necessary.”
The announced closure areas that the council recommended changing include areas near Cutler, Mount Desert Island, and in Penobscot and Casco bays.
Some fishermen were concerned that without any changes to the large closure areas, those who usually fish for scallops in one area near their home ports would have to travel a significant distance to get to an area where scallop fishing is permitted. But council members cautioned that if the closure areas were too small, it would be too easy to violate the closures and too difficult for Marine Patrol to enforce them.
Ed Fagonde urged the advisory board not to close so much coastline to scalloping so that all the boats concentrate in small areas.
“People are desperate,” he said. “They need to get to work.”
After taking suggestions, the council decided to recommend:
— Not to close the coast between Cutler and Lubec.
— To open northeast Frenchman Bay and close northern Blue Hill Bay.
— To close Penobscot Bay west of North Haven and Cape Rosier but to open a triangular area between St. George, Owls Head and Matinicus.
— To extend the Casco Bay closure area farther east and west but to open part of the central Casco Bay area.
According to Department of Marine Resources spokeswoman Togue Brawn, much of the data that prompted state officials to consider the emergency closures included declining landing numbers in Cobscook Bay. For that reason, she said, the department has determined that all of Cobscook Bay would remain closed to scallop fishing until at least next December, if not longer.
David Etnier, deputy commissioner of Department of Marine Resources, told people at the meeting that department Commissioner George Lapointe was expected to consider the council’s recommendations and to make a final decision on the emergency closures by next Tuesday.
The emergency closures are expected to last through the end of March, when the annual winter scallop fishing season ends.
The advisory board also talked about whether, for future fishing seasons, the state should adopt scallop management zones similar to those in the lobster fishery, in which lobstermen are licensed to fish only in certain areas. Officials said the idea behind creating the management zones is to make it easier to manage the fishery, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire state.
But some fishermen objected to creating zones. Scallop fishing boats frequently travel long distances along the coast to get to fishing grounds, they said, and any scallop zone structure likely will end up being used by some fishermen to keep scallop boats from farther away out of their local areas.
“We don’t have to have lines for management in local areas in which all fishermen throughout the state of Maine have an interest,” advisory council member John “Doug” Wood said.
Wood pointed out that management zones haven’t worked out so well for the urchin fishery.
Despite good intentions to better manage the urchin fishery through a zone approach, Wood said, “it’s ruined.”