WHITING, Maine — Nearly 200 Down East fishermen packed the Whiting Community Center on Tuesday evening to share their frustrations and to trade their ideas about what’s to be done about Maine’s fragile scallop fishery.
Fielding comments at the 90-minute emergency meeting was Pat Keliher, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He told those attending that his marching orders from Gov. Paul LePage were to get a feel for the scallop harvest in Cobscook Bay from the men and women who have been dragging for scallops since the season opened on Dec. 17.
Keliher said he’s scheduled to meet with the governor and his staff this week to brief them on the situation and to discuss what, if anything, can be done to improve it.
By all accounts shared at the session, the situation is bleak. The problem, fishermen said, is not a lack of scallops, but a lack of scallops large enough to be legally harvested.
“Quantity is not a problem; it’s the size,” said Owen Moody of Roque Bluffs, who fishes out of Eastport with his son Shaun. “There are tons that are 3 inches or 3½ inches, which is just under the legal size. It’ll take a couple of years for them to come back.”
Harvesting scallops has been banned in part of Cobscook Bay since September 2009, when low scallop numbers prompted DMR to close 12 noncontiguous areas along the coast to scallop fishing. The closures were expected to expire with the start of the 2012-2013 winter fishing season, the dates of which have not yet been set. The areas now off limits represent 10 percent of the scallop fishery statewide, Keliher said.
Keliher told the fisherman that his office has been fielding three kinds of messages from Down East fisherman, most coming from those who work Cobscook Bay.
“A lot of people are calling and say: ‘Close it. Too much seed is being dragged over, and it’s just ruining it,’” Keliher said. “Others call and say: ‘Close it, but open the closed areas.’ … Then we get calls from people who say: ‘Leave us the hell alone and let us fish. We’ll figure it out.’”
Keliher said he only has the authority to close areas determined to be in danger of being heavily damaged or depleted. He cannot, he said, order the immediate opening of an area already closed. That would require either a 90-day rule-making period or would require emergency legislation that would have to be initiated by the governor and approved by a two-thirds vote of the Maine Legislature.
Among those attending Tuesday’s emergency meeting in Whiting were three state representatives from Washington County: David Burns, R-Whiting; Howard McFadden, R-Dennysville; and Dianne Tilton, R-Harrington. Also attending was former state senator Dennis Damon, who for many years was chairman of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.
The paucity of market-size scallops this season has driven up prices for those large enough to be sold. On Monday the price being paid was $10.75 a pound, but few fisherman are coming back to port with anything near the 135 pounds a day they are allowed.
“I did 75 pounds today, and I’ve had days of over 100 pounds,” Owen Moody said. “But, tomorrow, who knows?”
BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.