WISCASSET, Maine — The Department of Marine Resources on Wednesday took no action to further restrict scallop fishing from the New Hampshire border to Penobscot Bay, but said further steps — such as those already taken in the rest of the state — would be necessary to sustain the fishery through the rest of the season.
Fishermen from southwestern Maine gathered at the Lincoln County Communications Center found no consensus on what steps should be taken — or if any are needed at all.
But Trisha De Graff, resource coordinator for scallops, urchins and groundfish for the department, said something must happen before the 70-day season ends in March.
“We’re at a tipping point right now,” she said. “If we want to make it to the end of the season, something has to be done.”
Many of the fifty or so draggers and divers in attendance disagreed, telling De Graaf that the fishery “can manage itself” if several zone closures are removed.
“With all these closed areas … you’re killing scallops,” said Adam Benner of Bremen. “You’ve had it closed too long and they weren’t turning the bottom … now the rivers are dead. Let nature take it’s course … we’re not going to kill our resource.”
“It’s closed for roughly 290 days a year [already],” said Travis Carter, who fishes out of Muscongus Bay. “Can’t you just leave it alone and open it up?
But others argued that further restrictions are needed because high scallop prices and the elimination of Maine’s shrimp season are driving more fishermen to scallops.
“We need to err on the side of caution,” said Jim Wotten of Friendship. “I’d like to have something left next year.”
Although De Graaf acknowledged that the department has only “a very small and slim data set” for the area, and largely relies on industry reports, documentation provided by the DMR on Wednesday reported a 70 percent decline in scallop catch in Spruce Head since Jan. 2, and a 17 percent decline since Jan. 9.
The reduction in catch in the Damariscotta River at South Bristol was worse, according to the department, with a 32 percent decline between Jan. 13 and Jan. 27.
Currently, scallop fishermen in southwestern Maine are limited to 15 gallons, or 130 to 135 pounds of meat, per day, and they can fish Mondays through Fridays. A few areas are further restricted by zone.
Some on Wednesday suggested reducing the catch limit from 15 gallons to 10 gallons per day, while others preferred cutting the number of days from four to five a week.
Most agreed that targeted closures of specific areas isn’t working because other areas are then overfished.
The restrictions would be only the latest in a series of closures imposed by the DMR on the Maine coast.
On Jan. 23, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher announced short-term scallop management measures for the Cobscook Bay area that will allow fishermen to continue harvesting three days a week. However, he noted that the season may still be shortened.
That restriction followed by less than one week other restrictions on harvesting scallops, including closures in six other parts of the state.
Minus any consensus from Wednesday’s meeting, De Graaf said she would share the fishermen’s suggestions with Keliher. The department would likely issue a statement on its plans for the area by the end of the week, she said.
She said her goal was to keep fishermen working this year while managing future seasons.
“We can leave you guys where you are now, but it’s bankrupting your future,” she said.