DENNYSVILLE, Maine — Patrick Keliher, Commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources, came to listen to scallop fisherman on Tuesday afternoon.
Some of them gave him an earful.
DMR already has distributed information indicating that scallop fishermen enjoyed a banner year in 2013, but they are likely to have smaller catches next season because of conservation measures.
Last year saw the highest amount of scallop landings in 13 years — 424,547 pounds — and the highest value of landings — $5.1 million — in 15 years, said Trisha De Graaf, resource management coordinator for the Department of Marine Resources. She shared information about the scallop fishery with about three dozen people at the Dennysville Congregational Church, including a handful of DMR staff.
DMR has estimated the amount of scallops available to be harvested next season from Cobscook Bay while maintaining a sustainable fishery at 148,460 pounds. If the same number of fishing boats are active and harvest their limit of 90 pounds a day, it would take only 12 days to reach that target harvest.
By contrast, an estimated 329,400 pounds were harvested in the past season, which was open for 33 days during the winter.
A season of 12 days suggested by De Graaf was derided by several fishermen. Leo Murray of Lubec called it “crazy.” Tracey Sawtelle of Lubec called it “baloney.”
De Graaf called the 12 days “a starting point” and acknowledged that when the number of days is finalized, it likely will be more. Keliher can set a longer season but trim days by emergency action if landings approach the target amount.
The scallop-rich Cobscook Bay is producing most of Maine’s scallops. Because of that, it is attracting fishermen from areas to the west – which is one of the biggest complaints of local fishermen. The fishermen who live in the Cobscook Bay region should reap the benefits, they argued.
“It’s all gone wrong,” said Murray.
“Nothing good has happened to us,” he added later.
The fisheries that are in decline are those that are harvested by mobile fleets, warned Murray — fishermen who steam from one region to another.
“This area performs,” said De Graaf. “This area can grow scallops. That’s why it’s attracted so many people.”
Sawtelle suggested DMR initiate a license endorsement that allows fishermen to harvest scallops from Cobscook Bay. Under his proposal, the endorsement would hold the fishermen to the same rules and regulations that apply to Cobscook Bay if they harvest scallops in other zones, too.
If scallop populations can be increased in other regions, those fishermen will not resort to going to Cobscook Bay, De Graaf suggested. “We’re trying to rebuild something in their backyard,” she said, so they will fish in their own region. However, the other regions are “not there yet,” she added.
Sawtelle and others also questioned the scientific data gathered by DMR staff that is used as the basis for estimates of harvestable scallops and the condition of the fishery.
“I’m not big on scientific data,” Sawtelle said.
“We know what’s going on out there,” said John Wallace of Lubec, not the DMR scientists.
There were more scallops in the bay last year than DMR surveys indicated, argued Paul Cox of Edmunds, a member of DMR’s Scallop Advisory Council, and the bay is in no worse condition than it was a year ago.
Kevin Kelly, a DMR scientist, told the group he had “a lot of confidence” in the way the agency surveys areas to estimate scallop populations and the data it collects, although De Graaf acknowledged the fishermen have “a lot of mistrust and lack of confidence” in the science.
Some fishermen also objected to sustenance licenses for Native Americans that allow them to harvest 25 pounds of scallops daily.
“We’re working on that,” said Keliher. “The issue has not been resolved.”
“I’m here because I do try to listen,” said Keliher, who angrily jousted with fisherman during a meeting earlier this year in Whiting that was a prelude to emergency action to close the Cobscook Bay season early.
The session in Dennysville was the last in a series of meetings with scallop fishermen in recent weeks to share information and gather input. The Scallop Advisory Council will meet in Brewer on June 30, when Keliher is expected to present his recommendations for next season.