HALLOWELL, Maine — With little fanfare, the state Department of Marine Resources Advisory Council on Wednesday officially set the dates and closure areas for the 2009-10 scallop fishing season.
The quiet, unanimous vote contrasted with often contentious public meetings held earlier this year, when the state nearly canceled the second half of the winter scalloping season altogether because of concerns about low scallop stocks in state waters. DMR instead enacted temporary emergency closures between late February and the end of March.
In all, the council, with the support of DMR, picked 12 noncontiguous areas Wednesday between Casco Bay and the St. Croix River that will be closed to scallop harvesting for the next three years. Some noncontiguous sites officially are considered parts of one closure area.
The council also voted to enact a two-year closure for both scallops and urchins in Whiting and Dennys bays, which are part of Cobscook Bay in Washington County.
The number of days for the scallop season was set at 70, the same as last winter, but they have been parceled out differently this year. Instead of two uninterrupted 35-day blocks, which was the case for the 2008-09 season, fishermen will be able to harvest scallops Tuesdays through Saturdays, beginning Dec. 15, 2009, and ending March 24, 2010. The only exceptions are two Friday holidays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, when scallop fishing will not be allowed.
Seven members of the 14-seat council and a handful of DMR staffers were present Wednesday at the Natural Resource Service Center for the separate scallop season and Cobscook Bay votes, each of which was approved by a unanimous decision.
Dana Temple, a member of the DMR Advisory Council and chairman of its Scallop Advisory Council, told other council members that the process of drafting the scallop season dates and closures started out roughly last spring but became smoother as fishermen got used to the idea that closures were needed.
“We’ve just watched this fishery practically disappear,” said Temple, a former fisherman and now a scallop dealer. “It’s gotten to the point where something has to be done.”
Getting fishermen to go along with the process — by showing up at public meetings and making constructive suggestions about what areas could be closed — was not easy, he said.
“I expected to get lynched a couple of times,” Temple said.
Temple emphasized after the meeting that the long-term future of the fishery would be in jeopardy if state officials and fishermen didn’t take concrete steps to protect scallop stocks in state waters. Because the scallop fleet is so mobile and because scallop fishermen know where the productive areas are, he said, there is no way to do it without closing some areas down.
“You have to protect some of those areas,” Temple said. “They don’t blossom like flowers every spring.”
David Etnier, deputy commissioner for DMR, told the council that more work will have to be done before the closures expire in early 2012. The state hopes to have fishermen adopt some form of local control over scallop management measures but without drawing territorial barriers for what traditionally has been a highly mobile scallop fishing fleet, he said.
Etnier said the closures the state and council have approved are the best they could come up with, given the challenges of adopting restrictions that are enforceable, scientifically sound, and that allow fishermen to continue to earn a living.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “We’re not sure what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. We just know the status quo isn’t working.”
Some members of the council asked Etnier whether the state would approve aquaculture leases in the areas that are closed to scallop harvesting. He said nothing has been decided but there is nothing in state law to prevent such a thing.
“We haven’t given it any thought,” Etnier said.
“I don’t think leasing out a closed area would be popular,” cautioned council member Glen Libby of St. George.
Etnier assured Libby there would be public hearings and opportunity for fishermen to comment if any aquaculture leases were proposed for the closed areas.
Areas that will be closed to scallop harvesting for the next three years include:
— Part of Casco Bay extending offshore from Harpswell Neck.
— Areas between Georgetown and South Bristol and extending offshore.
— Northern reaches of Muscongus Bay, including the Medomak and St. George rivers, and southeast of St. George toward Matinicus Island.
— Eggemoggin Reach and Southeast Harbor off Deer Isle.
— Northern reaches of Blue Hill Bay between Blue Hill Harbor and Newbury Neck.
— South of Marshall Island, near Isle au Haut and Swan’s Island.
— Due south of Mount Desert Island between Bass Harbor Head and Otter Point.
— All of Gouldsboro Bay.
— Inshore areas between Moose Neck in Addison and Great Wass Island in Beals.
— Englishman Bay inshore of Roque Island.
— Much of Machias Bay and Little Machias Bay and offshore areas between Cross Island and Cutler.
— The St. Croix River from Gleason Point in Perry to Calais.