SULLIVAN, Maine — Years after state fisheries officials took action to create a special management area for Taunton Bay, they are poised to implement a simplified version of the plan that would ban dragging for scallops and urchins in the tidal estuary.
A public hearing on the proposed plan Tuesday night at Sumner Memorial High School drew only 20 people, including state officials. Of the 20 who showed up, only two were fishermen who were opposed to the plan.
“I’m shocked that we’re back here again talking about this,” Sorrento fishermen James West told officials with Maine Department of Marine Resources. “I don’t think we’ve done any irreversible damage to that bay.”
A previous management plan for the bay expired at the end of 2010. Since that plan expired, dragging for scallops, urchins and mussels has been allowed in the bay, which is connected to larger Frenchman Bay by the narrow, tidal Taunton River. Before the plan expired, dragging for urchins and mussels was allowed but dragging for scallops was not.
For decades, access to Taunton Bay by larger fishing vessels such as draggers was limited by an old Route 1 bridge across the narrow “river.” In 1999, a year before the old metal Singing Bridge was replaced with a new concrete span that is higher off the water, the Legislature implemented a ban on dragging in Taunton Bay to give DMR time to develop a management plan for the bay.
Because of the old bridge, Taunton Bay had been relatively protected from fishing effort common along the rest of the Maine coast, and state officials thought it should remain that way.
DMR set out to develop a comprehensive management plan for the bay that took into account the effect that dragging and other types of fishing could have on the bay’s environment. Not only did fisheries officials consider what kind of effect fishing would have on commercially harvested species such as scallops and urchins, but they also took pains to evaluate how eelgrass beds and horseshoe crabs might be affected. Taunton Bay is the northernmost habitat along the East Coast where horseshoe crabs are commonly found.
The initial dragging ban was extended in 2005 for two more years and, in August 2007, the Taunton Bay Management Area plan went into effect. As the department drafted and then maintained that plan, DMR held extensive public meetings in the area to set fishing eligibility requirements and mandatory preharvest meetings to set catch limits and boundaries for mussels, urchins, scallops and kelp, according to DMR officials. In 2010, the final year of the plan, about 25 fishermen had been approved by DMR to fish in Taunton Bay.
The plan was allowed to expire at the end of 2010, however, because of the disproportionate effort it took to keep it going, DMR officials indicated in printed documents they distributed at Tuesday night’s public hearing.
“The management process was found to be too cumbersome and complex to maintain for such a small but ecologically important area,” they indicated.
According to Linda Mercer, director of DMR’s bureau of marine science, part of the motivation for drafting the previous plan was to experiment with a type of management more comprehensive than what DMR typically uses in regulating effects on marine species. Mercer said Tuesday that it was the only type of comprehensive management plan of its kind in the state, but that many other bays or areas along the coast could be good candidates for that type of management.
The problem is an allocation of resources, Mercer said. The new plan being proposed for Taunton Bay includes many of the strict harvesting limits or prohibitions that existed under the previous plan, she said, but it does not include the arduous schedule of meetings, mailings and research that the other plan required. Also, no special fees or permits would be required under the proposed plan.
According to Mercer, fishermen would be allowed to drag for mussels in Taunton Bay, provided they give 10 days advance notice to DMR of their plans. Harvesting mussels by other means such as hand-raking is not commercially viable, she said, whereas scallops and urchins can be commercially harvested by divers who gather them by hand.
“Unrestricted dragging does cause problems,” Mercer said during the hearing. “Both [scallop and urchin populations in the bay] were in pretty bad shape when we researched them a few years ago.”
Mercer added that dragging for mussels generally doesn’t affect scallops and urchins because mussels tend to be found in different parts of the bay than the larger shellfish species. Also, she said there has not been a high level of interest among fishermen in harvesting mussels in Taunton Bay because they tend to be larger there than most consumers prefer.
John Deraps of Trenton was the other fisherman to speak out against the proposal at Tuesday’s hearing. He said he fished in Taunton Bay only a few times this past year and that few fishermen do.
Echoing West, Deraps questioned whether special restrictions for Taunton Bay were needed. If mussel dragging will be allowed in the bay, he said, scallop and urchin dragging also should be allowed.
“That makes zero sense to me,” Deraps said of allowing one type of dragging but not others. “I need to go up there a few times a year [for scallops and urchins] to make a living.”
Two people at Tuesday’s hearing who voiced support for the proposed plan include Steve Perrin, property manager for Burying Island LLC, and Frank Dorsey, president of Friends of Taunton Bay.
Dorsey said the proposed plan is “science-based” and called Taunton Bay “one of the most valuable estuaries on the East Coast.”
Perrin said dragging should be restricted in the bay to better protect eelgrass, horseshoe crabs and other marine plants and animals. He said people once thought groundfish were endlessly plentiful, but that belief turned out to be wrong.
“I don’t think we need business as usual,” Perrin said. “I’m all for limiting [dragging in Taunton Bay].”
The deadline for submitting written comments about the plan is the end of the business day Monday, June 11, 2012. Comments can be mailed to Kevin Rousseau at DMR at 21 State House Station, Augusta 04333-0021 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.