PEMBROKE — The Maine scallop fishing season opened during the first week of December and now, with two weeks or less remaining, reports on how good a season it has been are decidedly mixed.
On the good side of the ledger, there seemed to be plenty of scallops, often in places where none have been seen for years, Melissa Smith, who coordinates scallop management for the Department of Marine Resources, said last week.
With the season ending for draggers on March 29 along the Downeast coast (divers get six more days between March 30 and April 14), Smith said, only one of the seven rotational management zones that were open to fishing at the start of the season has been fully closed to fishing. Last year as the season ran down, only two of the seven rotational areas open at the season’s start remained fully open at its end.
“While emergency closures are still occurring each season,” Smith said in an email, “we’re observing that more harvestable area is remaining open during the season.”
The extended openings and “the expansion of harvestable scallops back to traditional beds,” she said, are indicators of the growth of the growth of the scallop resource in inshore waters.
According to Portland scallop dealer and former resource manager at DMR Togue Brawn, “they’re finding some nice pockets of big stuff still, which is a good indicator that the measures we put in place years ago are working.”
Without the closures and limits, the little “bump” in scallop population that occurred naturally “would have been just that. Guys would have found some nice patches and wiped them out. Now we’ve got something that could last.”
If there are more harvestable scallops around, their abundance may not be benefiting the pocketbooks of Maine’s fishermen.
Tim Sheehan, a seafood dealer in Pembroke on Cobscook Bay who also imports and sells the novel N-Viro scallop dredge from Scotland, said “the season seemed really soft.” According to Sheehan, scallop fishermen in his area generally saw a boat price of $11.50 per pound at the beginning of the season, though a few buyers paid as much as $1 more. As the season wore on, he said, “demand dried up” and the price dropped as low as $9 per pound.
Brawn, who sells super-fresh “Downeast Dayboat Scallops” to high-end chefs as well as consumers, said she paid premium prices to the fishermen she buys from rather than the common boat price.
“I’ve been paying between $12 and $14,” Brawn said Monday. “I believe boat price is now between $9 and $10,” per pound. “It did in fact drop a little recently.”
Although the Maine scallop season is just about done, the price that consumers pay at the supermarket may be on the way down.
Maine scallops are harvested almost exclusively in state waters within three miles of shore.
“The successful management of the federal fishery (outside the three-mile limit) has yielded an increase in landings and that will continue,” Brawn said. “But that’s pushed down prices.”
Last year, according to DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, Maine scallop harvesters landed 793,544 pounds of scallop meats, the most since 1997 and a jump of nearly 45 percent from 2016. That, though, is just a tiny percentage of total U.S. scallop landings.
In 2016, the last year for which figures are available, total scallop landings, mostly in Massachusetts from the federal offshore fishery, totaled more than 30 million meat pounds. This year, with more boats allowed to fish, regulators project landings could climb to 40 million pounds or more.
If those projections are correct, it could mean even lower prices for Maine fishermen when the 2018-2019 season opens in December.