BANGOR, Maine — State officials are looking to limit the number of scallop licenses in Maine by setting an entry rate of how many people have to leave the fishery before a new person is allowed in.
But of greater concern to many in the industry is the number of people already dragging or diving for scallops. There are nearly 900 licensed scallop fishermen in Maine, the vast majority of whom did not fish last year. If all the license holders decided suddenly to go fish for scallops, according to members of the state’s scallop advisory council, it could put the troubled fishery under even further strain.
“There’s a big difference there,” Dana Temple, the council’s chairman, said Tuesday about managing the entry of new members into the fishery and managing those already in it. “It’s a flood of [fishing] effort I’m concerned about.”
The council met Tuesday in Bangor to discuss and make recommendations to the Maine Department of Marine Resources about how to limit entry into the industry. Because of declining catches in the fishery, the Legislature is requiring DMR to establish a licensing scheme that will reduce the number of licenses in the industry over time.
The annual harvest peaked at more than 3.8 million pounds of scallop meat in 1981, for which the scallop fleet was paid more than $15 million. Between 1982 and 2000 the yearly statewide haul generally wavered between 650,000 and 2 million pounds, with values of those catch totals fluctuating between $4 million and $10 million, according to DMR statistics.
Last year, scallop fishermen harvested only 85,000 pounds of scallop meat in Maine, earning less than $600,000 statewide for their trouble.
On Tuesday, council members discussed how many scallop licenses should be retired throughout the state for every new one that is issued. Some members of the 13-seat council said it should be more than 10, while others said it should be fewer than five.
But much of the conversation focused on how many licenses are already in the industry.
According to Togue Brawn, resource management coordinator for DMR, only 217 of Maine’s 893 licensed scallop fishermen were active in the fishery this past year. Because scallop divers and draggers are required to file catch reports with the state, DMR can track which license holders are active in the fishery and which ones aren’t.
“We know we’d like to have fewer licenses,” Brawn said. “Fewer than 800, most likely, given the state of the resource.”
Brawn acknowledged that the department does not have an ideal number in mind and said that what the ideal number of licensed scallop fishermen in Maine is — or should be — likely never will be determined.
“We’re always going to be saying ‘Is it too much?’ or ‘Is it too little?’” she said.
According to David Etnier, deputy commissioner for DMR, the Legislature has not authorized the department to try to actively reduce the number of existing scallop licenses. Even if the Legislature approved such a strategy to reduce pressure on the weak fishery, he said, deciding who gets to keep their license and who doesn’t would prove difficult and highly controversial, he said.
Instead, since 2007, DMR has focused on other Legislature-approved ways to reduce scalloping, including the implementation of a daily weight limit on scallops, a reduction in the length of the season from 135 days to 70 and an increase in the minimum size that scallopers are allowed to keep. With the Legislature’s approval, he said, DMR has not issued any new scallop licenses since May 1, 2008.
“The scallop fishery used to be one of the premiere fisheries [in Maine],” Etnier said.
In the meantime, DMR is depending on voluntary retirements to reduce the number of scallop licenses in Maine. Last year, 18 fishermen decided not to renew their scallop licenses, Etnier said.
The area closures enacted last year by DMR are another way the state is trying to protect the resource, according to Etnier. The 12 noncontiguous closures, which are spread out between Casco Bay and the St. Croix River, are set to expire in 2012, he said. DMR hopes to develop, with the help of local scallop fishermen, a set of criteria for reopening each closure area.
After some debate at the council’s meeting Tuesday, members voted 9-0 to recommend an entry ratio of 5-1, meaning that five license holders would have to give up their licenses voluntarily for each new license that is issued. They also voted to recommend that licenses be issued by an open lottery basis to any Maine resident at least 18 years old and that the entry ratio policy be revisited every two years.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been clarified to compare the value of the scallop harvest to the weight of the scallop meat. The previous version may have been misleading because it included the weight of the shell.