BREWER, Maine — The state’s scallop advisory council on Wednesday tacitly supported a preliminary proposal from Maine Department of Marine Resources to implement a multiyear rotating closure schedule before next winter’s scallop season begins.
Meeting at Jeff’s Catering, the advisory council revisited its earlier recommendations to DMR to reduce the number of fishing days from 70 days to 43 and the daily harvest limit from 200 pounds to 135. DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher told the council that the department is interested in implementing a 10-year rotating closure schedule as a way to rebuild and manage scallop stocks rather than imposing tighter restrictions on when and how much fishermen can catch.
“There’s got to be a better way to skin a cat,” he said.
Rather than going with its earlier recommendations, the council voted Wednesday to propose instead that fishermen keep the existing 70-day season format, which has been in place since it was reduced from 132 days in 2008. And rather than reduce the daily per-fisherman limit from 200 pounds to 135 pounds, it recommended a daily limit of 185 pounds, which is roughly the equivalent of four five-gallon buckets.
In addition, the closed areas being considered by DMR, which have yet to be defined or selected, would replace a dozen closure areas that have been in place since 2009, when declining scallop stocks prompted DMR into action. This winter’s scallop season ended at the end of March but the existing closure areas technically don’t expire until next month. According to DMR officials, scallop stocks in the areas that have been closed have rebounded over the past three years.
One issue of concern — for the council, DMR officials and more than a dozen fishermen that attended Wednesday’s meeting — is what effect the opening of these closed areas might have on the number of fishermen who hit the water next December.
There are 684 licensed scallop fishermen in Maine, and of those only 276, or roughly 40 percent, of them were active during the 2011 calendar year. If, due to the lure of reopening the currently closed areas, all 408 of the dormant license holders return to the fishery next season, the impact on the fishery could be drastic, officials said.
Some fishermen at the meeting suggested that the council’s prior recommendations of a 43-day season and a daily limit of 135 pounds would not only help the resource recover but would reduce the number of dormant licenses that become active again next winter. Others said those limits would be too restrictive, however, especially for fishermen who don’t have other licenses to fish for other species at other times of the year.
Keliher told the council Wednesday that the number of fishermen who, despite the current 200-pound limit, have been able to harvest 150 or more pounds a day have been relatively few. Most at the meeting agreed, however, that there will be enough legal-sized scallops in those areas that they expect to reopen next winter for fishermen to reach their daily catch limit.
According to Trisha Cheney DeGraaf of DMR, the department is thinking about limiting access to the newly reopened areas, perhaps to one or two specific days a week, in order to prevent them from being overrun by scallop boats as soon as the season opens. The department does not have authority to reduce the number of licenses or to increase penalties for fishing violations, which only the Legislature can do, DeGraaf said. DMR plans to ask the Legislature to address these issues, she said, but there is not enough time to amend those laws by the time the scallop season starts again in December.
DMR faced pressure this past winter to close some areas and to open others. The department closed parts of Cobscook Bay in January after fishermen reported that most of the scallops they were catching were smaller than the 4r-inch minimum size. Some fishermen also asked DMR to close part of Blue Hill Bay because of heavy pressure and illegal fishing that was occurring there. The department declined to do so because the season was nearly over when it became clear that scallop stocks there were being harmed.
Which days during the week fishermen will be permitted to harvest scallops, and exactly when the 2012-2013 season will start and end, has not yet been determined.
In 2009, when DMR nearly canceled the second half of that year’s scallop season, only 85,000 pounds of scallop meat were harvested by licensed divers and draggers in Maine. That overall catch, for which the statewide fleet earned less than $600,000, was the third-lowest annual yield in Maine since 1950, according to DMR statistics. Only 2004 and 2005 had lower statewide scallop landings totals.
Since 2005, the average annual price per pound that Maine fishermen have been paid for scallops has hovered around $7 or $8, until last winter, when it was around $10. Fishermen caught 173,000 pounds of scallops in Maine in 2011 and that year were paid a total of $1.73 million for their efforts.
Prices this past winter have been as high as they were last year, if not higher, some fishermen have said. Fishermen have said anecdotally that the sharp decline in the scallop harvest in Japan that was caused by the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster of March 2011 has prompted the recent price spike in Maine.
The historical peak of the fishery in Maine was in 1981, when fishermen harvested 3.8 million pounds of scallop meat and earned a total of $15.2 million for their catch.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.