PORTLAND, Maine — Maine is considering letting new people into the scallop fishery for the first time in nearly a decade because the shellfish are healthy just as some fishermen are getting too old to harvest them.
A legislative committee was set to vote on a proposal to create a license lottery system on Wednesday. The fishery has been closed to new people since 2009, and the state’s proposal would give out new licenses for the first time later this year.
Maine’s scallop fishery has stabilized recently after crashing in the mid-2000s, and set a record value at $12.77 per pound at the docks in 2016. But the average age of Maine’s approximately 630 scallop fishermen is higher than 50, and it’s time to get new blood into the business, said Jimmy Wotton, a Friendship-based scallop dragger.
“We need to make sure there’s a way younger fishermen have access to it. If we don’t do something now, it’s going to be too late,” he said.
Most Maine fishermen who harvest scallops drag for them with boats, but a hearty few dive for the bivalves in frigid waters. Fishermen in Maine seek scallops from December to April every year.
The state has proposed holding separate lotteries for draggers and divers. There would be two dragger licenses issued for every three that aren’t renewed per year. Diver licenses would be issued on a one-for-one basis.
The proposal would need to be approved by the full Legislature if it passed Wednesday’s committee vote. The state is able to allow new people into the fishery because of conservation efforts that have rebuilt it since 2005, when fishermen caught only about 33,000 pounds of scallops. They caught more than 16 times that in 2016.
“It was dismal,” said Rep. Walt Kumiega, D-Deer Isle. “But it’s on the road to recovery, and hopefully it continues on that path.
The state is a small piece of the much larger nationwide scallop fishery, which is based around New Bedford, Massachusetts, and has also been strong in recent years.
The value of scallops in the U.S. began rising in the late 1990s and topped out at more than $585 million at the docks in 2011. The nationwide fishery was still worth nearly a half billion dollars in 2016. The seafood has been readily available to U.S. consumers, sometimes at more than $20 per pound at markets.