Maine looks to Isle of Man experience for path back to scallop fishery

Posted March 06, 2011, at 6:12 p.m.
Last modified March 06, 2011, at 6:56 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — Thanks to overfishing and poor management, by the 1990s the scallop fishery had collapsed on the Isle of Man. But thanks to strict, and initially unpopular, governmental regulations of the scallop grounds on the small Irish Sea island, it has returned to being very profitable — and some in Maine hope that the Manx miracle could be replicated here.

“The closures on the Isle of Man are similar [to those in Maine,]” Togue Brawn of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Saturday after a scallop seminar at the 36th Annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport. “They’ve turned it around. It’s very successful.”

Billy Caley of the Isle of Man was among the speakers at the seminar on Collaborative Scallop Management Examples & Options from Around the World. Caley, 52, said that he started fishing aboard a scalloping boat when he was 15 years old. Although there were plenty of scallops at that time, the price often was low, he remembered.

“There were times you didn’t get paid,” he said.

Then, in the 1990s, the king scallop fishery had collapsed, and many fishermen — including Caley — had to leave to find work elsewhere. Some headed to the east coast of England to fish for scallops there. Others left the business entirely. At the nadir of the collapse, fishermen were harvesting just seven 35-kilogram, or 75-pound, bags a day — much less than they had previously.

“We were struggling to make a living,” Caley said.

Then the government of the Isle of Man got involved, shutting some fishing grounds to the outspoken dismay of many. Fishermen resented the government meddling, he said, with many — including himself — poaching where they weren’t allowed to fish any longer.

But the stock started to come back, the marketing improved, and so did the fortunes of the fishermen who had stayed. Now, the 30 boats and 90 fishermen who make up the scallop fishery are able to harvest as many as 75 bags, or 5,775 pounds a day. Most of the catch, 80 percent, is processed and shipped fresh to France, with much of the rest sent frozen to Spain and Italy.

“I think it’s the best we’ve ever had it,” Caley said. “There’s good opportunities for young men to come back into the industry.”

Caley, who now works as a scallop processor, had some good things to say about those regulations. “I think without government rules being forced on us at the beginning, we would have ruined our own fishery,” Caley said. “As much as I hate to admit it. Something had to happen — because the whole industry was collapsing.”

Brawn said that she hopes Maine will be able to follow the path taken by the scallop fishery on the Isle of Man.

In 1999, 741 dragger licenses and 353 diver licenses were issued for scallops. By 2009, those numbers had dropped to 683 draggers and 135 divers. The harvest and market value also have declined precipitously. In 1999, 5.3 million pounds of scallops worth $4.4 million were harvested. Ten years later, the catch had dropped to 700,000 pounds worth just $600,000.

Brawn asked whether anyone attending the seminar had an active scallop license. No one raised a hand.

She said Maine regulations now have shut 20 percent of the coastline to scallop fishing, but 80 percent is still open. The government also has reduced the season length from 132 days to 70 days and dropped the catch limit, changes not popular with many fishermen.

Chris Petersen, who teaches marine biology and marine policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, said that he appreciated hearing the unvarnished truth from the fishermen of the Isle of Man. “I love the candor,” he said. “It’s great to hear a fisherman say, ‘Times were hard. I poached, we all poached.’”

But that’s not all he liked from their story.

“They’re totally doing what you would call adaptive management,” he said. “The reason [the turnaround] happened was because things got so bad. It’s hard to change when it’s really going well. His talk was about the opportunity that they took.”

But Carla Guenther of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington said that her takeaway from the session was primarily the fact that no active fishermen had attended. She soon will hold a number of meetings up and down the coast to allow the fishermen to voice their thoughts about how best to open the fishing grounds that were closed three years ago.

“It could be as big as lobsters,” she said of the troubled fishery. “Scallops could easily be as lucrative.”

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