ELLSWORTH — Citing heavy fishing pressure and concerns about depleting the stock of juvenile scallops, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher last week announced emergency closures of two large areas to scallop fishing for the rest of the current season. The closures went into effect on Feb. 2. In the two closed areas, one off Mount Desert Island and the other in the middle of Penobscot Bay, the fishing season for scallop draggers ends March 31. The season for divers ends April 18.
DMR rules allow scallop fishing only on certain days of each month. For draggers, the closure will eliminate 16 days in February and 18 days in March in the closed areas. Divers will lose 16 days in February, eight days in March and six days in April.
Keliher used his emergency rulemaking authority to set “scallop conservation closures” in two areas of the state’s waters designated as Zone 2 — running from roughly the middle of Penobscot Bay eastward to Quoddy Head, under the DMR scallop fishing regulations. The first closure encompasses the waters around the middle Penobscot Bay islands in the vicinity of Great Spruce Head Island, Butter Island, Eagle Island and Bradbury Island and up toward Pickering Island. The second closure encompasses all of Somes Sound and virtually all of the waters between Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Islands including the upper portion of the Western Way, all of Mount Desert Island Great Harbor and the waters surrounding Sutton, Little Cranberry and Baker islands as far east as Otter Point on MDI.
The rationale behind the emergency action, according to DMR, is the concern that continued harvesting in the two closed areas would further reduce scallop broodstock, the large scallops that are the source of juvenile scallop spat when they spawn, and threaten the small, sublegal scallops observed in those areas during last spring’s survey of the state’s scallop resources.
According to the DMR website, on opening day of the 2019-20 scallop fishing season last December, the Marine Patrol spotted roughly 15 to 20 boats harvesting scallops in the waters between Great Spruce Head Island to the south up toward Pickering Island near the western entrance to Eggemoggin Reach, including the waters around Butter Island, Eagle Island and Bradbury Island. During the first few weeks of fishing, reports indicated that harvesters were landing scallops with a meat count of 10 to 12 scallops per pound. Part of that decline is attributable to the heavy fishing pressure in the area.
From a group of 15 to 20 boats during early December, the fleet increased to as many as 30 to 35 boats by late January. That was approximately double the fishing effort during the 2016-2017 season when a peak of 15 boats harvested the area during January 2017.
The Marine Patrol also documented a decline in both the harvest rate and meat size during January.
According to DMR, boats boarded opening week in December reported landing three to five bushels of scallops per 15-minute tow. During the last week of January, boats reported harvesting one to two-and-a-half bushels per tow with scallops, and the scallops coming over the side were smaller.
In December, harvesters reported that it was easier to select larger, legal scallops in shells. By late January it was more necessary to measure the shellstock.
Conditions were similar, though less intense, in the Somes Sound and Cranberry Islands area.
According to DMR, the area saw “moderate” harvest activity during the first week of December with approximately 11 boats working steadily north of Sutton Island. By the third week of December, the Marine Patrol observed as many as 25 boats working in the area. By early January, only a handful of boats were spotted in the closed areas and, DMR said, the fishermen themselves reported that the scallop stock was depleted and that fishing should be stopped.