In steel-gray harbors all along the Maine coast since December, fishermen in outboards have cut through the raw, pre-dawn cold heading to the mooring to go scalloping. The first year of Maine’s new scallop management is a success story far beyond its economic metrics: landings that will be reported at this week’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport will show substantial landings, possibly headed for a season high relative to the recent decade. The season has been a viable winter fishery for about 30 percent more licensed fishermen.
Even more important is that this is a success story about state fisheries management. It is about listening and a staggering amount of effort on the part of fishermen and the Maine Department of Marine Resources. There have been profits, real-time monitoring and adjustments, closures, communication, new trust and learning. And there are scallops left for next year.
Of course, it hasn’t been perfect. But after this year, some fishermen and some managers realize that this is, inevitably, the start of a process of fishermen and the state agency sharing information and managing this resource together for the long haul and to great benefit. What more could anyone ask given the complexity and difficulty of managing a resource like scallops in a changing ocean?
Maine manages the sea scallops in the area within three miles from shore. Scallops are difficult to manage because they are both patchy and unpredictable. Scallops live in dense scallop beds that are easy targets. Without rules, fishing can wipe out precisely the density that is necessary for scallop reproduction. Even when rules protect one scallop bed, where and when the next one becomes established is highly unpredictable since fertilized scallop “spat” settles at the whim of currents and other factors.
Five years ago, faced with statewide landings as low as 33,000 pounds, down from past highs of more than 1 million pounds, the state started to try to restore scallops. Several measures were put into place including closed areas. Fishermen from all along the coast helped to site these 13 closures that were set to reopen in December 2012.
Since 2010 the marine resources department and fishermen, together and independently, have discussed strategies for how to open these areas. An unprecedented 88 scallop fishermen’s meetings have taken place. The discussions started with values: Do you want to be able to fish near home or travel statewide? And tough questions: How do we avoid wiping out good sets in a year? And science: Did scallops rebuild in the closed areas? Can fishermen ride the state scallop survey boat? How fast do scallops grow?
Penobscot East Resource Center started these, meeting locally, and the department continued, meeting at the same local scale. Everyone learned: Scalloping is different because the ecology differs coastwide, and even scallop genetics is stunningly local within a small bay like Cobscook.
Through all this, the new scallop manager and newly appointed marine resources department commissioner heard and responded to fishermen’s weariness about creating a one-size-fits-all plan for reopening the closed areas as “limited access areas.” Several industry suggestions for flexible management were adopted by the department in a long-term scallop management plan. These included the concepts of rotational management, the use of real-time catch rate measurements to trigger the commissioner’s use of his emergency authority to close an area and recognition of the geographic differences in fleet behavior and scallop resource along the coast.
The result: ten management actions in three months; fishermen’s information about catch rates contributing to in-season closure decisions; concerted work by department marine patrol, sea samplers, scientists and managers; and constant communication between fishermen and the department. There were emails, phone calls and texts — angry, approving, informational — not shirking from what it takes, and, in the end, learning together, establishing some trust and getting value from the resource without big mistakes.
This is a huge achievement. This is the management of the future. To get the ecological and economic return from a variable resource like scallops it takes both fishermen’s observations and willingness to participate, and it takes an agency ready not only to listen but to make tough, timely decisions and keep communicating. That’s what happened this year.
Robin Alden is executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington and former Commissioner of Marine Resources.