ELLSWORTH — When Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher took the advice of his Scallop Advisory Council last year and set a 70-day fishing season for this winter (just 50 days in Cobscook Bay) he warned fishermen that DMR was likely to cut the season short.
At an SAC meeting in Ellsworth last Thursday, the chickens came home to roost, or at least they were visible from the coop.
About six weeks after the 20-week season opened on Dec. 1, DMR Resource Management Coordinator Trisha Cheney told some two dozen scallop fishermen that the seasons in both Cobscook Bay and in Zone 2, an area stretching from Penobscot Bay to the Lubec Narrows, were likely to close soon.
If the number of boats fishing in Cobscook Bay — about 75 on average this year — remains constant, Cheney said, fishermen could expect nine more days spread over three weeks beginning Monday, Jan. 26.
The season in Cobscook Bay could last just another six fishing days — two weeks.
“The more boats that travel down there,” Cheney said, “the faster it will close.”
An early closure way Downeast would likely be bad news for the rest of the fleet, Sorrento fisherman James West told Cheney and Keliher. Boats that are currently fishing in Cobscook Bay will likely move their effort to areas around the Bold Coast (off the Trescott area.) Addison, Englishman Bay Frenchman Bay.
According to SAC member and Machias scallop dragger Jimmy Ackley, a lot of boats are already fishing in those areas and landing their daily 15-gallon limits.
West said closing Cobscook Bay will only make things worse.
“If you close it, be ready to close right along,” he said, “because the boats will move west and put pressure on” along the rest of the coast.
Cheney agreed. If enough boats move from Cobscook to the Zone 2 area, she said, the season most likely will be cut short there too.
That didn’t make anyone happy.
“All I can say, Cobscook Bay has been hammered and we’re getting the shaft for it,” Beals Island fisherman Maurice Alley told Cheney and Keliher, who listened from the back of the room.
“My goal is to see you guys get as many days as you can, but I want to have a fishery next year,” Keliher said.
Closing the fishery in Cobscook Bay earlier than first scheduled is part of a DMR effort to protect the area’s stock of juvenile and spawning-size scallops.
Last year, the department announced it would shut down this year’s fishery in any area where it determined that fishermen landed 30 percent-40 percent of its “harvestable biomass” of scallops. DMR also set a harvest target of 200,000 pounds for Cobscook Bay, Cheney said. Last year, some 329,000 pounds of scallops were harvested in the area.
The department estimates that, by the time the fleet took a scheduled two-week break beginning in early January, it had already harvested 20 percent of the harvestable biomass in the bay.
“If we’re at 20 (percent) now and we get 135 boats Monday, it’s going to go fast,” she said.
So far this has been a good season for Maine scallop fishermen, at least in the eastern part of the state. Although bad weather in December and January has limited the number of days many boats could actually fish, halfway through the season, fishermen in Zone 2 were still regularly landing their daily limits, Cheney said. They have also been getting “a really strong price” for scallops, often between $12.50 and $14 per pound, and the scallops have be of a “good size.”
Despite continuing dissatisfaction with the three-year rotational scalloping closures along large sections of the Downeast coast, several harvesters, SAC members and otherwise, reported signs that the scallop resource seems to be rebounding, at least in some areas.
“I’m optimistic,” Mount Desert Island scallop diver and SAC member Andy Mays said.