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Maine scallop fishermen risked livelihoods for conservation, deserve support

Posted Dec. 02, 2012, at 4:30 p.m.

Three years ago, Maine’s scallop fishermen did something special. Acknowledging the severely depleted state of the scallop resource in state waters, they worked with managers to close some of their most important fishing grounds in an attempt to help them recover.

This week, those areas will be fished for the first time since March of 2008. Covering almost 20 percent of Maine state waters, their three-year closure represents a significant sacrifice fishermen endured in the name of conservation. In these tough economic times, it is rare for long-term vision to win out over short-term needs. It is particularly rare for long-term vision to win out in the world of fisheries decisions, where conservation for the future often equates to economic hardship for fishing families. We should all take our hats off to Maine’s scallop fishermen, who took a risk three years ago in an attempt to create a better future for themselves and their communities.

In the late 1990s, Maine’s scallop fishery began a precipitous decline. By 2007, landings remained at historic lows and showed no sign of recovery. Citing the millions of dollars a recovered resource would provide, the Maine Department of Marine Resources demanded immediate and significant action. Many fishermen scoffed at this directive, believing the best course was to “let mother nature take care of it.” But others worried the resource was so depleted it was unlikely to recover in their lifetimes without assistance from industry. These fishermen began working with DMR scientists and managers to lend mother nature a helping hand.

Their first steps limited licenses, cut back the season and established a daily limit. With these significant changes accomplished, they turned to closed areas. In the federal fishery, closed areas had resulted in dramatic biomass increases and consistent profits for fishermen. But despite the success experienced offshore, many Mainers resented the idea of being excluded from their traditional inshore grounds. These fishermen opposed any additional action and demanded they be left alone until mother nature and recent management changes could work on bringing the resource back.

With fishermen in two opposing camps and managers demanding closures, discussions at the 17 meetings held from Eastport to Scarborough were heated. But in late 2009, after two years of confrontation, collaboration and debate, a historic compromise was reached that closed 20 percent of Maine’s state waters to scallop fishing.

Opponents questioned whether the closures would be worth the effort it took to create them and the sacrifices fishermen would have to endure by being excluded from traditional grounds. On Dec. 3, we’ll begin to find out. For the first time since March 2008, fishermen will be able to legally harvest scallops from the closed areas, with draggers and divers each being given one day per week. If the closures can withstand the pressure, open days will increase to two days per week in January.

Preliminary surveys suggest a few closed areas have seen a remarkable increase in biomass. Some Eastern Maine closures now support a scallop bounty unseen in recent memory. This abundance comes with a risk: Politicians and fishermen will pressure DMR to “let fishermen work,” harvesting long past the point where the remaining scallops could replace what was removed. The argument in favor of liberal harvesting is simple: It allows fishermen immediate profits. But it is this short-term thinking that prevents sustainable and consistent profits.

Excessive harvests would nullify hard-won gains and quickly drive the resource back to the collapsed state that prompted initial action. We know closed areas can work, and we suspect that the increased reproductive output creates benefits even outside the closed areas. If DMR can fend off the pressure to increase immediate harvests, Maine’s scallop fishermen will be on their way to a sustainable and far more profitable future.

In fisheries, nothing is guaranteed, but one thing is clear: Maine’s scallop fishermen took a daring step three years ago in a brave and risky attempt to build a better future. We should support their sacrifice and encourage their good decisions by buying Maine scallops throughout Maine’s winter scallop season.

Togue Brawn formerly worked for the Department of Marine Resources where she managed the scallop fishery. She currently works in fisheries research, consulting and advocacy. She owns and operates Maine Dayboat Scallops, Inc.

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