LUBEC, Maine — Maine’s annual coastal scallop fishing season is due to start Dec. 1 and fishermen, eager to benefit from strong demand and record high prices, are setting their sights on Cobscook Bay, the most productive scallop fishing area in the state.
But, more than any other year in recent memory, many are running into a fairly significant planning obstacle: Where are they going to keep their boats?
Maine’s licensed scallop fishermen can go anywhere along the coast to drag or dive for the valuable bivalves, and have been known to crowd boat landings near where the fishing is best. The municipalities that line Cobscook Bay, long considered the best place to fish for scallops in Maine, are used to seeing fishermen from points farther west come and go from their shores during the winter scallop season.
But three of the half-dozen or so municipalities whose shorelines line the bay — Eastport, Lubec and Pembroke — all have fewer available places this year for fishermen to tie up their boats overnight than they did a year ago.
Last December, the collapse of part of the breakwater pier in Eastport greatly reduced the number of spots available in the marina it shelters. With the $15 million reconstruction project now fully underway, the marina is completely closed to all mariners except the U.S. Coast Guard.
A year ago, some of the scallop fishermen displaced from Eastport went instead to Pembroke, mooring their boats off the town’s landing off Garnet Head Road. Boat captains accustomed to using that facility year-round were not thrilled with the crowded conditions, prompting Pembroke residents to vote in August to restrict the number of mooring spots at the site this year to 17.
And in Lubec, the local harbor committee voted last month to adopt a 180-day moratorium on processing new mooring applications, which is expected to expire after scallop season ends in late March. Town officials there have cited concerns over increased demand for moorings and the additional pressure that scallop season will bring in deciding not to issue any new mooring permits, either for local residents or for people from out of town, until mid-April 2016.
“If we weren’t expecting a lot of boats to come in [for scallop season], we could try to ride it out and see how it goes,” John Sutherland, Lubec’s town administrator, said Nov. 9. “[We] know [we] have an issue, and scallop season is going to bring an influx [of fishing boats].”
Price and demand
Though the value of the fishery is half of what it was in 1981, when landings in Maine were worth $15 million, scalloping has been a growing fishery in the state the past several years as demand for the product has risen. The average price that scallop fishermen receive for their catch has been at record levels this decade, hitting nearly $10 per pound in Maine in 2011 and rising every year since.
The vast majority of scallops harvested in the United States are caught offshore by federally permitted draggers at Georges Bank and off the mid-Atlantic states. The nationwide landings value of sea scallops in 2014 was ranked third among all individual commercial species with a total worth of $424.5 million, but only $7.4 million of those scallops were caught in Maine waters.
In Maine, where the average price paid to scallop fishermen in 2009 was $7.41 per pound, the number of active fishermen targeting scallops in coastal waters has grown by 260 percent over the past six years, from 168 licensed harvesters to more than 400, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Curtis Haycock, a scallop dragger from Milbridge and a member of the state Scallop Advisory Council, said Nov. 6 that demand going into this season suggests that the per-pound average price paid to fishermen this winter could end up being higher than the Maine record of $12.78, which was set just last year.
“The price is going to be good,” Haycock said.
Lubec officials said the waters surrounding the village peninsula are known to have strong, swirling currents that can make it difficult to lay out mooring fields so boats don’t bump into each other as the currents pull them back and forth. The town has about 120 permitted moorings spread among three different sites — one just north of the downtown Lubec peninsula, another at Globe Cove off Seward Neck, and a third at Bailey’s Mistake off Route 191 — all of which are fairly exposed depending which way the wind is blowing.
“We don’t really have a safe harbor,” said Julie Keene, who has been the town’s harbor master only since early October. “And the harbors are pretty darn full right now.”
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for Maine Department of Marine Resources, indicated Nov. 9 in a brief emailed statement that the department is concerned about the situation.
He said fishermen and state regulators have worked together for years to try to maintain the historic mobility of the fishery that allows licensed scallop fishermen to fish anywhere in Maine. The actions to limit availability of moorings in Lubec and Pembroke, he said, appears to run counter to those efforts.
“This issue has been on the department’s radar,” Nichols wrote. “We are concerned that it will cause potential safety issues for a traditional mobile fleet seeking a safe mooring site in either Pembroke or Lubec. Without safe harbors, these boats will be forced to moor in locations that will require navigation through dangerous passages.”
Milan Jamieson, a Pembroke selectman, said Nov. 6 that crowding at the boat launch off Garnet Head Road last winter prompted local voters to adopt a 17-mooring limit at Pembroke’s town meeting in August.
He said as many as 35 boats were mooring off the ramp. Regular users at times were delayed in getting out to their boats because of the congestion at the ramp, he said, and town officials were concerned that some fishermen from out of town might be using inappropriate mooring weights such as engine blocks to keep their boats from drifting away.
“We had boats tying to the channel marker,” Jamieson said.
Anyone found violating the town’s ordinance, he said, could be issued a citation by Pembroke Harbor Master John Preston, and possibly fined.
Jamieson was quick to add that, regardless of the mooring limit, the town would not chase away boats that might be facing an emergency or having mechanical issues.
“If a guy is in trouble, we’ll try to help him,” he said.
Chris Gardner, director of the Eastport Port Authority, said Nov. 10 that the local breakwater marina had space for about 40 boats before the structure collapsed a year ago and, after the incident, maybe six or eight. Many fishermen who live in the area used the marina during scallop season, he said, with a few slips going to fishermen from farther west who brought their boats to Eastport just for scallop fishing.
Local fishermen who had options were able to find mooring spaces elsewhere, he said, but the challenge is much steeper for fishermen who don’t keep their boats in Cobscook Bay year-round.
“Room for vessels from out of the area is little to non-existent,” Gardner said. “We were able to limp our way through scallop season [last year]. There’s just no room up here now.”
Gardner said the new, unfinished breakwater pier has been designed to accommodate about 30 percent more boats, for an expected capacity of just over 50 vessels, and should have a lifespan of more than 50 years. The breakwater pier that collapsed last December was built in 1962 for $1 million and lasted 32 years beyond its expected 20-year lifespan, he said.
But one of the drawbacks to the reconstruction project, Gardner added, is that it won’t be complete until the summer of 2017. That means it will be unavailable for next winter’s scallop season, too.
“This hurts. It’s painful,” Gardner said, adding that it shows how badly a new breakwater pier and marina in Eastport are needed. “Sometimes, it falls to a new generation to build something that will last [for decades].”
‘Play it by ear’
Curtis Haycock said recently that he kept his boat moored off the town landing in Pembroke last winter, driving back and forth on fishing days from his home more than 60 miles away in Milbridge. He said that, by his count, there were as many as 47 boats that used the Pembroke landings as their base of operations during scallop season last winter.
He said that he and other fishermen from out of the area who moored their boats in Pembroke last year made an effort to be good guests at the Garnet Head Road facility.
“We did everything we could [to be conscientious],” Haycock said.
This year, he added, he is not sure where he’ll keep his boat.
“They’ve put quite a crimper on things by doing this,” Haycock said, referring to the 17-mooring limit off the Hersey Neck boat ramp in Pembroke. “I’ll guess we’ll play it by ear.”
Haycock said that, outside of Eastport, Lubec and Pembroke, there aren’t many other good waterfront access options in the area. There is a boat landing on state-owned land in Edmunds Township, at the western end of the bay, but the strong tides and narrow access points between that landing and the scalloping areas farther east make it a more difficult option. Boats can moor in Gleason Cove in Perry, he added, but they have to steam all the way around Eastport to get to Cobscook Bay and navigate through similarly strong currents in Western Passage.
Plus, he said, Cobscook Bay could be more crowded this winter than it was a year ago because of the state’s rotational closure management plan, which will allow fishing in only one-third of state waters. Boats will be concentrated into fewer fishing areas than in other years when two-thirds of state waters are open to fishing, he said.
Aside from the issue of mooring availability in Cobscook Bay, the Maine Department of Marine Resources has scheduled a series of public meetings this month to discuss limits for the 2015-16 scallop season. Catch limits remain at 15 gallons a day from the New Hampshire line to Lubec Narrows, but 10 gallons per day in Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays. The total number of allowable fishing days spread out over the season is still 70 days in eastern Maine and 50 days in Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays, but between the New Hampshire state line and the western shore of Penobscot Bay they are being reduced from 70 days to 60 days.
One public meeting already was held Thursday, Nov. 12, at Rose M. Gaffney School in Machias. Three more are scheduled, for Tuesday, Nov. 17, at the DMR offices in Augusta; Monday, Nov. 23, at Ellsworth City Hall; and Monday, Nov. 30, at the Whiting town office. All the meetings will start at 6 p.m.