MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine — To a casual observer, the sight of a brightly painted buoy floating on the ocean’s surface is a sign that lobster or crab are lurking beneath.
Such a buoy usually marks a spot where a trap has been deposited on the ocean bottom, later to be picked up and checked for crustaceans by its owner.
But had such an observer been near a particular buoy Saturday morning off the west side of Mount Desert Island, he or she might not have noticed a stream of bubbles coming up to the surface near that buoy, or that it was moving slowly against the current. He or she almost certainly would not have immediately recognized that below the buoy, which was connected by a length of rope to a mesh bag on the bottom, was a diver swimming along the bottom in search of his prey.
Welcome to the working world of scallop diver Andy Mays.
Mays, a Southwest Harbor resident and member of the state’s Scallop Advisory Council, took advantage of Saturday’s sunny weather to spend his first working day of the winter scallop fishing season diving in the shallows off Blue Hill Bay. Approximately 130 of the 750 or so commercial scallop fishermen in Maine are li-censed to dive for scallops while the rest are licensed to operate drag boats, which drag equipment along the ocean floor to scoop up scallops and haul them to the surface.
This year’s winter scallop season in Maine started Tuesday, Dec. 15, and is expected to run five days a week, Tuesdays through Saturdays, until March 24, 2010.
At the end of his first dive Saturday, Mays surfaced and swam over to the side of his boat Lost Airmen, raising up a handful of scallops to a tender, or assistant, at the helm. The mesh bag he had filled remained about 50 feet below on the bottom, to be hauled up later in the day.
Still in the water, Mays first took off and handed up his weight belt, which counteracts the buoyancy of the dry suit he wears, and then removed and handed up his air tank and breathing regulator. Then, with a quick kick of his flippered feet, Mays was up over the side and standing back on board his boat.
After removing his flippers and tossing the gloves and head covering of his dry suit into a tub of heated water so they wouldn’t freeze, Mays said he first got into diving 19 years ago as a hobby. Soon, he started helping out other divers on their scallop trips, he said.
“I really like diving,” Mays said, standing on his boat in the 15-degree air.
In between dives, Mays can don dry clothing and go below into his boat’s heated cabin to warm up. He said he planned to take four 40-minute dives on Saturday, with a mandated safety interval at the surface between each one.
He joked that he likes hopping overboard and sinking down to depths of up to 65 feet in the water, which on Saturday was around 35 degrees, “so I can get out of the wind.”
But scallop fishing isn’t what it used to be. Because of recent drops in scallop stocks, the season has been shortened from 132 days in 2007-2008 to 70 days last winter and again this year. Last winter, concerns about the resource almost led the state to cancel the second half of the season, but after an uproar from fishermen the Department of Marine Resources decided to enact emergency spot closures instead.
In September, DMR enacted 12 noncontiguous closure areas along the coast that are scheduled to remain in effect until 2012.
Mays said he used to live year-round off his income from scallop diving in the winter; now he fishes for lobster in the summer to help make ends meet.
“I’m missing the days when we made so much money and had so much fun doing it and there were so many guys in the industry,” Mays said Saturday on his boat.
“[Scallop fishing] has been in the dumps for a decade now.”
In recent years, the average annual amount of scallop meat harvested in Maine is approximately 150,000 pounds, about 10 percent of the 1.5 million or so pounds that were harvested each year in the early 1990s. The annual value of the scallop harvest reached $10 million in 1993, but more recently has been just over $1 million, according to DMR statistics.
Mays said his goal for Saturday was to harvest about 45 pounds of scallop meat. That’s about four or five large mesh bags of whole scallops and, after the meat is cut out of the shell, about one 5-gallon bucket of the small white muscle discs diners are used to seeing on their dinner plates.
Sorting through his catch, Mays dumped scallops from a mesh bag he had filled on the bottom into a large bin. Picking up a metal ring several inches in diameter, he picked up scallops close to the minimum size and tried fitting them through the middle of the ring. If they passed through, he tossed them over the side back into the water. If they didn’t fit through, he put them with the larger scallops to keep.
Despite the fishery’s decreased output, Mays said he thinks it can recover. The closures and shortened season should help, he said, even if they create financial hardship for fishermen.
Standing at the rail of his boat, Mays held up a scallop about an inch in diameter before throwing it back overboard.
“When the water is warm, they swim right through the water like Pac-Man,” he said, referring to the classic video game. “This year, I’ve seen quite a few small scallops. You know, little guys, 1-inch, 2-inch scallops. I’ve heard from other people around the state that they’re seeing some small scallops, which we haven’t seen in many, many years.
“I hope it bodes well for the future,” he added.
A few minutes later, Mays had strapped his dive gear back on and was sitting on the edge of the boat with his legs hanging over the side. Clutching a mesh bag in a gloved hand, he pushed off and splashed back into the water. His head went underwater, he kicked his flippers up toward the sky and then disappeared back toward the bottom.