MOUNT DESERT, Maine — It is not normal for nearly 20 scallop draggers to be moored off the public boat ramp at Bartlett’s Landings on the west side of Mount Desert Island.
Nor is it normal for Maine Marine Patrol officers to find so many fishermen violating scallop regulations at one particular site.
But the law enforcement arm of the state Department of Marine Resources has issued roughly a dozen citations this winter to fishermen who have been dragging for scallops at a site on the other side of Bartlett Island, according to marine patrol Lt. Dale Sprowl. He said recently that as many as 30-40 scallop boats from all over the state have been in the area.
“That is not usual at all,” Sprowl said. “There is a bed in Blue Hill Bay that has been fished quite heavily. Word got out and boats came from all over.”
Sprowl said the scallop bed in the upper reaches of the bay has a lot of scallops, but a lot of them are below the legal size limit. In order for scallop draggers and divers to keep a scallop, its shell must be at least 4 inches in diameter. Any scallop smaller than that must be left in the water.
The reason the bed in the bay has been so popular, Sprowl said, is that scallops have been scarce in other places along the coast.
“It appears to be that they’re just not finding scallops anywhere else,” Sprowl said.
In 2009, declining catches of legal-size scallops prompted DMR to establish a dozen closure areas along the coast where industry officials hoped formerly scallop-rich areas would rebound. The closures were put in place for three years and are expected to expire later this year, before next winter’s scallop season begins.
In December, DMR closed a 13th area, in Cobscook Bay, just for the 2011-2012 season, which ends this coming Saturday, March 31. The western end of the bay, which consists of the smaller Whiting and Dennys bays, was closed after fishermen told DMR officials that most of the scallops they were finding were below the 4-inch limit.
Sprowl said most of the citations issued in Blue Hill Bay have been issued for undersize scallops, but some have been issued to fishermen who are not licensed to take scallops. Some alleged violations have been egregious, he added.
Marine patrol stopped one boat and counted 5,888 scallops on board, Sprowl said. Of those, 4,792, or 86 percent, were determined to be smaller than the legal minimum size.
“That’s a huge amount,” he said.
Sprowl declined to identify the fishermen because he has not yet been charged.
Sprowl said that state law prohibits the possession of any number of undersize scallops. State law requires scallop harvesters to shuck their scallops at sea to reduce the chance of contamination from naturally occurring toxins that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. The toxins have been known to be found in some scallop innards but not in the adductor muscle, which is the meat people consume.
Sprowl acknowledged the shuck-at-sea requirement can make the size regulation difficult to enforce because there is no minimum for the size of the meat, only for the shell that fishermen throw overboard. But he said marine patrol will remain vigilant for illegal scalloping in Blue Hill Bay.
“We continue to patrol the area,” he said.
Andy Mays, a Southwest Harbor scallop diver and member of DMR’s scallop advisory council, said Monday that one factor in the intensity of fishing in Blue Hill Bay is the current price of scallops. There is pressure to go out and fish, he said, because even though the state of the resource has been poor, the price has been high. Scallop fishermen can get $18 per pound for sushi-grade scallops, he said, and those that aren’t are fetching around $10-$12 per pound.
In 2011, the average annual statewide price fishermen were paid for scallops was just below $10 a pound. For each of the six years before that, it wavered between roughly $7 and $8 per pound, according to DMR statistics. Maine scallop fishermen are limited to catching 200 pounds of meat (after they have been shucked) on each day they are allowed to fish.
Mays said the issue of so many boats being in Blue Hill Bay and of the fishing violations that have occurred there is “not a small problem,” but he added that DMR and marine patrol officials have a lot on their plate. Some fishermen have been unhappy with the closure areas, including the closure of western Cobscook Bay earlier this winter, and lately marine patrol has been busy patrolling for illegal elver fishing that has been exacerbated by exceptionally high prices in that fishery.
“I’m disappointed that this has happened,” Mays said of the situation in Blue Hill Bay. “Thirty boats are taking 6,000 pounds of scallops a day out of there. Every week, that is 30,000 pounds.”
That is bound to have an effect on scallop fishing in the bay next winter, he added, but he thinks scallop fishing there will still be good for the 2012-2013 season.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Tuesday that the situation in Blue Hill Bay initially seemed to be an enforcement issue, not a resource one. He does have the power as commissioner to close areas, he said, but that power is limited.
“I can’t close an area based on what could or might happen,” Keliher said. “I also can’t close an area down [based] on illegal activity.”
By the time word got around and large numbers of boats started showing up in Blue Hill Bay, it was getting late in the season, he added. It became apparent the resource in the bay was being adversely affected, but at that point an emergency closure would have applied to only the last four days of the season, he said.
Keliher added that he sees the problem in Blue Hill Bay as part of the larger issue of the condition of the scallop resource statewide. He said DMR will be working with the scallop advisory council throughout the spring and summer to come up with conservation measures to put into place by this coming December. Those measures could include new rotating closures, a shorter season, a lower daily limit or other restrictions.
“Right now everything is on the table for discussion,” Keliher said. “Nothing has been ruled out to date.”
Those discussions are expected to begin in earnest next week when DMR officials hold four public meetings with members of the scallop industry. The meetings are scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, April 2, at Whiting Town Hall; 4 p.m. the same day at the Milbridge Town Office; 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, at Ellsworth City Hall; and 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at the state’s Natural Resource Service Center in Hallowell.
Travis Stanley, a Tremont fisherman, said Monday that he realized last year there might be good scallop fishing in Blue Hill Bay this winter when he hauled up large scallops in his lobster traps. But the concentration of boats in the bay this winter, combined with the illegal fishing that has occurred, has been a “travesty,” he said.
Stanley said the fine for illegal scallop fishing is $500, which for some unscrupulous fishermen is a worthwhile risk, given the prices they are getting and the relative scarcity of legal-size scallops. A fisherman that reaches the 200-pound limit could get $2,000 for his daily efforts.
“The profit-to-loss ratio is pretty good,” he said.
But, he estimated, 90 percent of the scallops in the open portion of Blue Hill Bay are “way too small.” He said that if DMR had extended the closure area in the bay, or had word somehow not gotten around that there are lots of scallops in the area, undersize though they may be, the bay might have become one of the bright spots in the state’s efforts to rebuild sustainable stocks of legal-size scallops.
“It’s kind of disheartening,” Stanley said. “If you gave it another couple of years the bay would have been full of them.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.