ELLSWORTH — The Maine scallop fishery opened Tuesday morning, with predictions that the boat price will be high, the season short and the pressure to let more people into the fishery intense.
Last week, Trisha Cheney, the Department of Marine Resources’ scallop resource coordinator, hosted an outreach meeting in Ellsworth to give industry members a heads-up about what to expect for the coming season and to hear their concerns about the fishery and the way it is managed by DMR.
The department is in the midst of developing a formal fishery management plan for scallops, but no draft will be available for industry review any time soon. In the near term, and of more immediate interest, Cheney said Downeast harvesters are likely facing “a lean season,” especially in Zone 2, which covers the waters from roughly the middle of Penobscot Bay eastward to Lubec.
In 2014, scallop landings totaled 584,172 meat pounds (without the shell) compared to just 33,141 pounds in 2005. Value jumped from a low of $272,703 in 2005 to $7,464,690 in 2014. Because each scallop season extends over parts of two calendar years, the 2014 numbers reflect landings for the period January through April and the month of December. In recent years, DMR has frequently closed the fishery by the end of March.
This season, harvesters will have access to seven areas in Zone 2 that have closed to scalloping under the state’s 10-year rotational management program. Encompassing locations in and around Machias Bay, Wohoa Bay and Western bays, Gouldsboro and Dyer bays, upper Blue Hill Bay and the Union River, eastern Eggemoggin Reach and Southeast Harbor on Deer Isle, lower Jericho Bay and, finally, lower Penobscot Bay and the outer islands seaward of North Haven, the newly opened areas were closed for just one season. As a result, these areas have had less time during which the scallop resource would be undisturbed and allowed to rebuild.
Cheney was particularly concerned with the fisheries in Gouldsboro and Dyer bays — both on DMR’s list for early, “targeted closures” if surveys and landings data show that 30 percent of the harvestable scallops have been landed.
According to Cheney, surveys show that the scallop biomass in Gouldsboro Bay is smaller than in the past — largely the result of DMR’s failure to close the bay in a timely way last year — and so is likely to be closed soon after the season opens.
“I predict it won’t make it to Christmas,” she said. Dyer Bay is likely to follow close on its heels.
While the scallop season is 70 days long in most state waters, it lasts just 50 days in Cobscook Bay — one of the most productive scallop fishing areas in the state. The daily landings limit is 15 gallons (about 135 pounds) of meats except in Cobscook Bay, where the limit is 10 gallons.
Historically, many boats head Downeast at the start of the season to cash in on the Cobscook Bay bonanza. This year, though, boats from harbors outside the bay may find it difficult to locate a mooring.
The collapse of the Eastport breakwater last December forced a number of local boats that tied up behind it to find alternative mooring space, Trescott fisherman Bill Anderson said. According to Anderson, that led the town of Lubec to freeze the number of moorings it will allow in its constricted harbor “because they have so much tide. They were very concerned” about inadequate moorings and about boats swinging into one another.
Boats that do go fishing should see excellent prices, especially for the large scallops that harvesters have been taking from Downeast waters.
Togue Brawn is a former DMR scallop resource coordinator who now runs Downeast Dayboat Scallops, which specializes in selling fresh Maine scallops to high-end chefs and markets. She said this year the boat price for Maine’s inshore fishermen should range from $12 to $14 per pound and should stay strong throughout the season, especially when bad winter weather shuts down much of the scallop fishery in offshore federal waters.
Ray Swenton, a Scallop Advisory Council member and head of Bristol Seafood, a large Portland fish processor, said harvesters would not get the best price for their premium-grade scallops by selling to major supermarket chains because there was a limit to what they can charge their own customers.
“They mark up their seafood 30 percent,” Swenton said, “and they want a year-round supply. You guys are better off peddling or selling direct.”
Last year, Cheney said, DMR issued 627 scallop licenses. Of those, 438 were “active participants” in the scallop fishery, including divers who reported their landings through sales to dealers. The balance, 228 dragger and diver licenses, were “latent,” purchased but not utilized for whatever reason.
In all, Maine has issued 627 scallop fishing licenses
Divers or draggers, “the fishery is getting older and no new people are coming in,” Cheney said. As part of its effort to create a fishery management plan, DMR is “trying to figure out how many licenses is the right number” to issue that will encourage new, and younger, entrants to the scallop fishery without increasing the risk that those new entrants would just increase fishing pressure on a fragile resource.
“That’s one of the things the council is concerned with,” Scallop Advisory Chairman Alex Todd said. “How do you get young guys in, or help guys (with latent licenses) get back in?”
Rob Bauer, general manager at Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor and a scallop buyer, suggested that people who work as sternmen on scallop boats ought to be able to count their working hours as “fish time,” equivalent to the sea time that merchant mariners must accrue to qualify for Coast Guard licenses.
“Letting in a handful of new licenses each year isn’t going to destroy the fishery,” Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle), co-chairman of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, told Cheney.