EASTPORT, Maine — The sun is rising above Campobello Island as the Shelby Lee and Drusilla L. and a skiff motor their way to the other side of the breakwater from their mooring.
The top half of the yellow sun is partly obscured by a cloud bank, and the bottom is not quite above the trees. The sun’s light creates a sliver of pink between the bluish clouds above and the tree line below.
It is a little after 7 a.m. Friday, and Paul Cox and the crew of the Shelby Lee and Jason Leighton and the crew of the Drusilla L. are getting ready to dive for scallops. It is chilly, although it is quite a bit warmer than the single digits and temperatures in the teens of earlier in the week.
With Cox, who lives in Edmunds, are his nephew, Brandon Cox of Edmunds, Charles Sinclair of Charlotte, and Ryan Priest of Dennysville.
Leighton is joined by his brother, Chris, co-owners of the boat and also nephews of Cox, and Matthew Seeley, all of Edmunds.
In a few minutes the boats are tied up side-by-side along the breakwater, and the two divers quickly finish putting on their scuba diving gear and are soon under water. Cox plunges in right next to the breakwater.
About 50-60 feet below the surface, the men stretch out just above the bottom and scoop scallops into a basket attached to the top of a long, cylindrical net. When their air is about gone, roughly 25 minutes later, they surface nearby. Leighton, accompanied by Seeley, maneuvers the skiff to pick them up and pull the nets of scallops into the boat. The diver swaps out his depleted tank of air for a fresh one and goes overboard again or is ferried to the fishing boats for another, and the men transfer the scallops onto the vessels.
At one point Leighton, in the skiff to get another tank of air, complains that he is hot.
However, Cox, 50, said later the worst part of the job is the cold. He and Leighton wear a scuba diving dry suit and underneath wear sweat pants and other clothing.
After the brown-shelled scallops are dumped onto a metal washboard on the stern of the Drusilla L., Sinclair and Priest quickly sort them, putting scallops into a slot in the edge of the washboard to determine if they are legal size. The legal scallops are tossed into baskets nearby, the undersize ones are thrown back into the water.
Once the scallops are sorted, they dump some into a plastic crate and hand it back to the men in the skiff, and then the four of them begin to shuck the scallops, opening each one with a knife, scraping aside all but the white meat, and then emptying the meat with a flick of the knife into a plastic bucket. The men work quickly. The two working in the skiff attract sea gulls that dip and dive into the water to feed on the scraps.
Cox got his urchin diving license in 1992, and he also worked as a diver for aquaculture companies that raise salmon in pens in Eastport. He added a lobster fishing license in 2000. He also has a license to drag for scallops, but this is the first year he has been diving to harvest scallops. In past years, he explained, the Department of Marine Resources scheduled diving and dragging for scallops on the same days. This season is somewhat of an alternating schedule, with certain days designated for dragging and others for diving.
The men usually dive on a slack tide — when the tide is not running strong either in or out. They are allowed to harvest the equivalent of 90 pounds of scallops per boat.
Quinton King of Corinth, a diver who works mainly in the waters around Lubec, has been critical of DMR for its approach to managing fisheries and regulating divers.
The number of licensed divers has declined markedly, noted King, and he blamed mismanagement by DMR. “Obviously, if they’re in charge, they’re the problem,” King said Saturday.
The number of licensed divers for sea urchins and scallops has declined from 1,122 in 2000 to 167, said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for DMR. However, the number of licenses issued for dragging also has declined over the same period, from 1,230 to 688.
“The reason for the decline is that both fisheries became limited entry a few years ago as an approach to help ensure conservation of these valuable resources, which means no new licenses have been issued for either draggers or divers for years,” Nichols explained in an email to the Bangor Daily News this week. Fishermen are “aging out,” he added, but the trend is more pronounced for those who harvest their catch by diving.
“The divers are old,” agreed Cox, who keeps his boat moored in Eastport year-round. “I’m almost average age. I’m probably in the middle of the road for divers.”
There are a few other divers in the region, said Cox, “but they’re ain’t a lot,” he added.
“I think they’re doing as good as they can,” Cox said, referring to DMR’s regulation of the various fisheries. The agency may have made some mistakes, but he added, “We’ve come a long ways. Look at the landings.” And next year should be good to fishermen, too, he predicted.
Cox will keep at it through the winter until March if the fishermen get all the days in allotted by DMR. Then, come spring, it’ll be time to put his lobster traps in the water.
The divers and crews finished up about 10:30 a.m.
Cox earned $12.75 a pound for his catch that day. “That’s the biggest price we’ve had,” he said.