ELLSWORTH, Maine —- A survey of scallop abundance Down East shows that at least some stocks are recovering after their number dipped dangerously low a few years ago.
According to a state scientist, the results of a survey last fall in Cobscook Bay and the St. Croix River show that area closures are having a desired effect of protecting the resource. The results also suggest that closures perhaps should be used more routinely to better maintain the state scallop fishery, as they have been at the federal level, he said.
“That would be a good thing to consider, I would think,” biologist Kevin Kelly of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Friday. “The closure there [in Cobscook Bay] appears successful from a biological standpoint.”
But a Trescott fisherman said Sunday that he’s not convinced that closures are the reason scallop numbers are increasing in the bay. Barry Huckins, who also is a member of DMR’s Scallop Advisory Council, said that he has fished in Cobscook Bay since the 1970s.
“I still don’t think it’s great,” Huckins said of scallop fishing in the bay. “But I’ve seen it a lot worse in Cobscook than it is now. It goes up and down.”
Huckins said he thinks there are natural factors that affect the abundance in the bay, and that other factors such as pollution also play a role.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources enacted emergency spot closures in early 2009 after they found that the number of scallops in state waters was sharply decreasing. Despite some objections from fishermen, seven areas along the coast, including Cobscook Bay, were closed to scallop harvesting for the remainder of the 2009 winter scallop season. In September of that year, DMR enacted 12 noncontiguous closure areas, including the smaller Dennys and Whiting bays in Cobscook Bay, that are expected to expire next year.
Each year, DMR conducts a scallop survey somewhere along the coast and in October 2010 it surveyed the waters of Cobscook Bay and the St. Croix River. The results of that survey were released last week in a report by DMR.
According to the report, the total abundance of scallops in Cobscook Bay increased by more than 5 percent from 2009, when the same areas were surveyed.
The number of harvestable scallops, which must be 4 inches wide or larger, increased by more than 40 percent in Cobscook Bay, according to the survey results. The abundance of sublegal scallops, which are between 2½ and 4 inches wide, decreased by more than 19 percent, but the abundance of scallops smaller than 2½ inches increased by nearly 120 percent. Small scallops less than 2½ inches wide are commonly referred to as seed scallops.
“It’s always good to see the seed [doing well],” Kelly said. “It means something’s coming down the pipeline.”
In Cobscook Bay’s westernmost sections, Dennys and Whiting bays, the density of harvestable scallops increased by more than 400 percent since the 2009 survey, the report indicated.
“This appears illustrative of the benefits of at least partial closures on the Cobscook Bay scallop resource,” Kelly wrote in the report.
Results from the St. Croix River, which is split between Maine and New Brunswick, show that its abundance of harvestable scallops also increased since 2009, though the overall abundance there saw a “small decline,” according to the report. Kelly said that despite the overall decrease, the St. Croix scallop resource has shown long-term growth.
“We surveyed there in 2006 and basically saw nothing,” he said.
In 2010, fishermen working along Maine’s coast caught and sold more than 185,000 pounds of scallops for approximately $1.5 million, or about $8 a pound. That total value is about one-tenth of the fishery’s peak value in 1981, when Maine fishermen caught and sold more than 3.8 million pounds of scallops at $4 a pound for a fishery total of $15.2 million.
Kelly said that DMR plans to conduct another survey on much of the coast this fall. He said the entire eastern coastline between Matinicus Rock and West Quoddy Head will be surveyed, with a concentration on the eight closure areas in that region, as will closure areas west of Penobscot Bay off Harpswell, Boothbay Harbor and St. George.
Huckins said that closures may hurt not just fishermen, but also the scallop resource.
Closures concentrate fishermen in other productive areas, he said, which can have a greater effect on those areas. When closed areas such as Whiting and Dennys bays, which are relatively small and accessible only at high tide, are reopened, it can create a rush among fishermen to fish the bay, he said. Safety in Cobscook Bay, where five fishermen have drowned since March 2009, has been a point of concern for local residents and officials.
“If you put a lot of boats in there, you’re going to have a lot of problems,” Huckins said. “You’re going to want to make everyone want to go there.”
Huckins said closures might work in federal waters, where there’s a lot more space and fewer boats, but it doesn’t make sense in Maine, which he said has 800 licensed commercial scallop fishermen.
“I’m not sure having closures is a good idea,” he said.
In August, the DMR Advisory Council set the dates for the 2011-2012 scallop fishing season, which as in recent years has been limited to 70 days. The scallop season has been set for 70 days each year since the 2007-2008 season, when it was 132 days long.
The 2011-12 season is set to run from Dec. 17 through March 31, according to information posted on the official DMR website. Fishing will not be allowed on Thursdays and Fridays in December and March, or on Christmas Day. During January and February, fishing will not be allowed on Saturdays and Sundays.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.