After years of waiting for the northern Gulf of Maine scallop population to flourish, small-boat fishermen from Maine say federal mismanagement of scallop stocks in the area could result in larger boats wiping them out.
Hancock fisherman James West said larger boats, most of which are based in Massachusetts, should not be allowed unlimited catches when he is capped at harvesting only 200 pounds of meat per day. And he said he’s angry the New England Fishery Management Council has known about the regulatory disparity for years and has done nothing to address it.
“That’s what makes me so mad about it,” West said Sunday. “I’m shocked the council couldn’t figure out a way to fix this. We’re really getting the shaft.”
Council officials say protecting the lucrative resource is a high priority that they plan to address in the coming year. But Maine fishermen say a year could be too late to ensure that federal scallop grounds in the gulf stay productive.
The $438 million sea scallop fishery, like New England’s closely regulated $680 million lobster fishery, has been one of the bright spots in commercial fishing in the Northeast over the past several years. While catches of once-abundant species such as various groundfish, northern shrimp, urchins and others languish, New Bedford, Massachusetts, continues to be the most valuable port in the country because of the $262 million worth of scallops that was offloaded there in 2015, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
West is one of a few dozen small-boat scallop fishermen from Maine, all of them draggers, who have federal licenses specifically for the northern Gulf of Maine scallop management area, which was created by the council in 2009.
At the time, scallop harvests in the area were so low as to be practically nonexistent. The council decided not to set any catch limits in the area for larger boats that are restricted by the number of days they can fish because those boats have licenses that also allow them to fish further south or further out at Georges Bank, where the scallop fishery has been thriving. The reasoning was that the larger boats had no incentive to head to more barren areas closer to the Maine coast.
In 2015, however, Maine fishermen started getting decent catches in the northern Gulf of Maine area, which consists of everything between roughly 3 miles out from shore — where the boundary to state waters lie — to roughly 50 miles offshore.
That is when the larger boats showed up.
“They were taking out thousands of pounds at a time. That’s crazy,” Togue Brawn, a former official with Maine Department of Marine Resources, said of the larger boats. Brawn, who now has her own scallop marketing and distribution company, buys her scallops from the smaller Maine-based boats that make day trips closer to home.
Brawn and others agree that the primary issue is not so much about dividing up the pie as it is making sure the area is managed properly so that it can be fished sustainably year after year.
Brawn said last week that all federally permitted boats that harvest scallops in the northern Gulf of Maine should be capped at 200 pounds per day. It is bad enough the large boats have no daily limit, she said, but it is even worse that their haul does not count toward the annual catch limit — which has ranged between roughly 70,000 and 95,000 pounds — that triggers the closure of the fishery. The catch limit, which was set based on historical figures because there isn’t enough survey data in the area to come up with a reliable estimate for how many scallops there are in the northern gulf, applies only to the smaller boats, she said.
As a result, the days-at-sea vessels can fish as hard as they want while waiting for the smaller boats to reach their 70,000-pound limit. She said that the estimate for the amount of scallops the larger boats harvested from the area in a few short months last year, from opening day on March 1, 2016, until it was shut down, is nearly 300,000 pounds.
“It is irresponsible management,” Brawn said. “We should be able to prevent the next [fishing] boom from becoming a bust.”
Big vs. small boats
Mary Beth Tooley of O’Hara Corp. in Rockland is chair of the federal regulatory council’s scallop committee. She said that while some have characterized the issue as a rivalry between smaller boats based in Maine and larger boats based elsewhere, the most important objective is to make sure the resource is sustainably managed.
Tooley last week said there is increasing pressure on the northern gulf scallop fishery from a variety of vessel categories, not just the larger boats restricted by days at sea — several of which are owned and operated by O’Hara Corp. out of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
The number of federal permits specifically designated for fishing in the northern gulf, including many day boats from Maine, has increased in the past few years, she said. Day boats from Maine exceeded their collective catch limit last year, she added, in part because of a slow reporting system that results in catch counts lagging a few days behind when scallops are harvested and brought ashore.
In the coming weeks, the committee will meet to discuss how catch reports might be compiled more quickly and how to collect better scientific data to estimate the number of scallops in the northern gulf, Tooley said. The committee first will work to identify issues that need to be addressed before the council considers making changes to fishing restrictions for each class of vessel, she added.
“The debate hasn’t really occurred yet,” Tooley said. “At this point, everything is on the table.”
Eyes toward the future
Terry Stockwell, a top DMR official and vice chairman of the regional fisheries council, said last week the increased scrutiny of the fishery reflects a positive environmental development. While some offshore fisheries such as groundfish or lobster off southern New England have been struggling, scallop catches have been on the rise in state and federal waters.
“The scallops are rebuilding,” Stockwell said.
The annual harvest volume for all Maine scallop fishermen has been close to or above half a million pounds for each of the past four years, after having averaged only 143,000 pounds per year over the decade before. And demand has risen along with volume, with the average price paid to Maine scallop fishermen hitting record highs each year from 2011 through 2016, climbing from just under $10 per pound six years ago to $12.77 last year.
Stockwell pointed out, however, that the amount of scallops harvested in the northern gulf is less than 1 percent of the entire annual scallop harvest on the East Coast, which he said suggests that the larger boats are more interested in strategizing for the future than in immediate financial gains.
As ocean temperatures continue to increase, traditional scallop grounds off the mid-Atlantic states of North Carolina and Virginia are becoming less hospitable to the bivalve species, according to Stockwell. If northern Gulf of Maine stocks continue to be viable while other populations further south decline, the larger vessels could end up with greater incentive to head north to fish instead of heading south, he said.
“They want to continue to be players in the [Gulf of Maine] region,” Stockwell said.
West said he and his fellow Maine dayboat captains have their own futures to think about, too. Regulators and fishermen who operate the larger vessels need to recognize the damage the lack of sufficient catch limits for all vessels may be doing to scallop stocks in the northern gulf, he said.
One days-at-sea boat can harvest as much as 4,000 pounds or more per day, West said, and if 10 such boats come up to the gulf for just 10 days, they can head back south with as many as 400,000 pounds of scallops between them. That’s roughly the same amount the smaller Maine boats are allowed to harvest in the same area over four or five years.
If the fishery were being managed properly, West said, all permitted boats could fish there for more of the spring and summer until the cap was reached, and there would be more confidence about having worthwhile catches the following year.
“How many more years are we going to have to wait to rebuild the fishery?” West said. “It won’t happen if [the council doesn’t] change how the gulf is being run right now. We are not going to back down.”