AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe approved on Thursday a list of closure areas recommended by the state’s scallop advisory council, which met in Ellsworth last week to gather public comments and discuss the issue.
The closures will be in effect during the second half of the winter scallop season, which runs from Feb. 25 through the end of March.
Areas that will be closed to scallop harvesting include all of Cobscook Bay, most of state waters off York County, and some of the coastal waters off Addison, Jonesport and Beals. Parts of Blue Hill, Casco, Frenchman and Penobscot bays also will be closed to scallop harvesting.
DMR officials announced the emergency closures last month in response to what they said was a steep drop in scallop stocks in Maine’s waters. They initially said they would close the entire state to scallop harvesting for the second half of the winter season but changed their minds after they said they realized they could impose emergency spot closures instead of closing down the entire fishery.
Many scallop fishermen have voiced strong concerns about how the closures will affect their livelihoods, and some have questioned whether the closures are necessary.
Ernest Kelley Jr., a Jonesport fishermen and member of the scallop advisory council, said Thursday that the state should seed some areas and then close them down for several years to let the scallop stocks recover. The state plans to do this, he said, but just doesn’t have the money to do it.
“I don’t see what good [the closures alone] are going to do,” Kelley said. “[But] something’s got to be done.”
Kelley said the price of urchins has been very low recently, which could result in even more fishermen targeting scallops than usual, even if the scallop landings aren’t that great. He said he’s concerned scallops in areas that aren’t closed would be harder hit because the closures will concentrate the boats that do go out in fewer areas.
“[The closures] are going to hurt,” Kelley said.
Togue Brawn, resource management coordinator for DMR, indicated in an e-mail announcing Lapointe’s decision that the department plans eventually to work out a system by which the scallop fishery can be managed through regional zones, rather than through a statewide approach. DMR and the advisory council plan to schedule six meetings in April to gather public comments about how this might be achieved, she indicated.
“Area management has strong support in industry, and we will work together in the coming year to generate something meaningful, equitable, effective and enforceable,” Brawn wrote.
On Wednesday, the Legislature’s marine resources committee voted unanimously in favor of increasing fines for harvesting scallops in closed fishing areas to $1,000. If approved by the Legislature, the fines would not go into effect until next winter’s two-part scallop season begins in December.
The current fine for illegally harvesting scallops in a closed area is $250, according to Lt. Alan Talbot of the state’s Marine Patrol.
The marine resources committee voted 11-0 to recommend that LD 82, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, ought to pass. The purpose of the bill, according to Damon, is to strongly discourage illegal scallop poaching in Maine’s waters so that the state’s depleted scallop beds, and its scallop industry, have a chance to recover.
The committee amended the wording of the bill so that, as it stands, someone who harvests scallops from a closed area could be fined as much as $1,000 and have all scallops seized. For a second or subsequent offense, a violator would face a minimum fine of $1,000 and a one-year license suspension, as well as having all scal-lops seized.
While discussing the bill Wednesday, members of the committee indicated they wanted to give law enforcement and the courts the option of being lenient with a first-time offender, but wanted to crack down hard on those who repeatedly get caught harvesting scallops where they shouldn’t.
“I feel you should be nailing people for a second violation,” Rep. Rob Eaton said. “You don’t do it by accident.”
The committee also voted 13-0 Wednesday against a bill that would have made it easier for lobstermen 65 years old or older who have let their licenses lapse to get back into lobstering. LD 141 would have made such former lobstermen exempt from a current rule that requires all fishermen who want to get a lobstering license to complete an apprenticeship with a licensed lobsterman before they get their own.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Down East Lobstermen’s Association, the state Lobster Advisory Council and DMR staff all opposed the bill. Officials with the groups said that such an exemption would put more strain on the lobster fishery, which has experienced declining landings in recent years.