ELLSWORTH — December arrived on Friday and with it came the start of the Maine scallop fishing season. While it’s still the earliest of days, it looks like prices may be considerably lower than they were last year.
The season for divers got under way statewide Dec. 1. For draggers, the season opened Monday everywhere except Cobscook Bay, where opening day was set for Tuesday.
On Monday afternoon, it looked like scallops would be plentiful, but dollars might be in short supply.
An expeienced scallop buyer on Mount Desert Island said his fishermen were finding plenty of scallops. Most had filled their 15-gallon daily limit by 10 or 11 a.m., he said, but were landing scallops that were on the small side.
“I’m disappointed,” he said.
Smaller scallops generally mean smaller prices, and indications were that opening day prices were down.
Last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources, Maine harvesters landed about 538,000 pounds of scallop meats worth some $6.87 million — an average of $12.77 per pound.
“Prices are off $2 to $3 from last year,” the MDI dealer said.
“I’ve heard the price is going to be low this year, but a lot of dealers were quoting prices last week that I thought were absurd,” said Togue Brawn, owner of Downeast Dayboat Scallops in Portland.
The price paid for scallops is based on size, measured by the number of scallop meats in a pound.
“I heard $8.50 for 20-30, $10.50 for 10-20 and $13 for U-10,” Brawn said Monday.
U-10 are the largest scallops, with fewer than 10 in a pound of scallop meats.
Size isn’t the only factor that affects price. According to the MDI dealer, a large number of scallops have come to market from unanticipated sources.
Both Peconic Bay, on the South Shore of New York’s Long Island, and Nantucket are producing unusually large numbers of pricy bay scallops that compete in the market with the sea scallops harvested in Maine.
Another factor, the dealer said, is that for the first time, several fishermen are landing scallops in Point Judith, R.I., daily and shipping them to markets in New York and Boston.
Thanks largely to Brawn’s efforts, over the past few years Maine has had little competition in the “dayboat” market for freshly landed scallops. The vast majority of sea scallops in fish stores, supermarkets and most restaurants are harvested at sea and may spend several days on ice before coming to shore.
Maine’s scallop fishery is divided into three management zones.
This year, draggers working in state waters between the New Hampshire border and a line down the middle of Penobscot Bay (Zone 1) have a 60-day season spread over 19 weeks ending in early April and a daily limit of 15 gallons (about 135 pounds) of shucked scallop meats.
From Penobscot Bay to Quoddy Head (Zone 2), the dragger season is 70 days spread over 17 weeks, ending March 29 with the same 15-gallon limit.
In Zone 3, Cobscook Bay and the St. Croix River, a 55-day season ending in March is spread over 17 weeks, but daily landings are limited to 10 gallons.
For divers, the seasons and landings limits are the same as for draggers, but they have a few more days to fish in protected “limited access areas.” As of last year, the Department of Marine Resources listed only 33 active scallop divers in the state responsible for less than 10 percent of all scallop landings.
Sections of zones 1 and 3 are designated as limited access areas where harvesting is limited to one day per week for each gear type to allow the scallop resource to rebuild. In Zone 3, Whiting and Dennys bay are both limited access areas.
In Zone 2, rotational areas, are opened and closed annually as part of a 10-year plan. DMR provides fishermen with detailed charts showing both limited access and rotational areas.
This year, Maine’s territorial waters around Machias Seal Island and North Rock located off the Bold Coast in the Bay of Fundy will be open for daily harvest during March.