ELLSWORTH — One look at the audience at a Department of Marine Resources hearing on new scallop fishing rules last week made it clear that the fishery is getting older. By a good margin, most of the three dozen or so scallop harvesters at Ellsworth City Hall last Wednesday evening had faces lined by years on the water and beards long gone gray.
As many as 600 harvesters may have Maine scallop licenses and last year, roughly 450 of those license holders were active in the fishery. Most of them, as with those who took the time to attend the DMR hearing, had spent long years in a fishery that little more than a decade ago was at the point of collapse but that last year saw landings of nearly 538,000 pounds of scallop meats worth more than $6.8 million.
Despite the surge in landings, DMR still maintains an active management program for the scallop fishery, limiting the length of the season, setting strict daily possession limits and closing or limiting access to wide stretches along the coast to both draggers and divers.
In 2009, the Legislature passed a moratorium on new scallop licenses. It also ordered DMR to come up with a lottery system to allow new entrants into a fishery that Brooklin scallop dragger David Tarr describes as a “club.”
The Legislature also adopted an owner-operator requirement effective for the 2018 fishing season that, in theory, would end the practice of fishermen with scallop licenses leasing their boats to fishermen without them.
DMR has introduced a proposal for a double barrel annual lottery for new scallop licenses. One set of rules would cover dragger licenses; a separate set would apply to diver licenses.
Both lotteries would have the same eligibility criteria except that there would be different exit ratios for the two categories.
To be eligible for the lottery, an applicant would have to be at least 18, a Maine resident, hold a Maine commercial fishing license or have crewed aboard a scallop vessel and not have fishing law violations within the past seven years.
Applicants also would get extra “draws,” or chances, in the lottery based on a number of factors related to time spent in the fishery as crew, or before the license moratorium, participation in “collaborative research programs” as well a several other items.
The Scallop Advisory Council recommended that two new dragger licenses be issued for every three that are retired. One would be allocated to an applicant between the ages of 18 and 30, the other to an applicant at least 31. The “exit ratio” for a diver’s license would be 1:1 with no age differential.
There were two principal reasons for the different treatment, the DMR’s Amanda Ellis explained at the hearing. First, the Scallop Advisory Council wanted to give an older drag fisherman who scalloped in the past but surrendered his license a chance “to get back in” to the fishery.
As for the divers, Ellis said, only 77 licenses are outstanding and just about 30 of them are still active.
Fishermen expressed little support for the lottery proposal last week, but their objections were somewhat contradictory.
For the past few years, the winter fishing season has been set at 70 days between December and April for waters from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border and 50 days in Cobscook Bay. This year, the proposed Cobscook Bay season would be 55 days.
Last year, and in the past several years, DMR closed some areas along the coast to fishing while the season was still under way “to prevent overfishing.”
“We don’t even have a full season, why are we talking about letting new people in?” asked Gary Hatch, a Rockland-based scallop dragger. “It’s not a full season, not a rebuilt fishery.”
The lottery structure, and the strict exit ratios, were more of an issue for Southwest Harbor fisherman David Horner.
“I’m against anything that includes the possibility that a young person may never get to go (scallop fishing),” Horner said. “Getting young people in (the fishery) is sacred. The idea that you’re going to issue just a couple of licenses is ridiculous.”
Victor Doyle, chairman of the town of Mount Desert Shellfish Committee, said that if a fishing violation within seven years disqualified an applicant from the lottery, it should also disqualify a scallop fisherman from renewing his annual license.
Bass Harbor fisherman Steve Carter said that “young kids need to be able to get in” to the scallop fishery and that the seven-year violation-free requirement imposed “double jeopardy” on a fisherman who had, presumably, already been punished.
Brooklin fisherman David Tarr summed up the license quandary that DMR and the scallop industry are wrestling with.
“I’m not entirely for it,” Tarr said. “If we’re not allowed a full season its kind of hard to be talking about this, but we need to be talking about this. The fishery is a club right now.”