SORRENTO — It was still pitch dark as a blunt-bowed outboard skiff ghosted out of the fog and nosed up to the ice-slicked Sorrento Harbor boat ramp an early Wednesday morning two weeks ago.
Snow still lay deep on the ground and waist-high banks lined the road, but for the first time in weeks, the forecast called for mild temperatures and light winds. It was an ideal day to join James West and his crew for a day of scalloping aboard his dragger, First Impression.
His 50th birthday not too long behind him, West has been a fisherman most of his life. He has gone lobstering, chased groundfish such as cod, haddock and flounder when there were any to be had, gone trawling for shrimp until the fishery closed two years ago, and has even leased a site in Frenchman Bay to try his hand at growing mussels and seaweed.
What West really enjoys, though, is running a dragger. Last week, with about a month left in the season, West had the 40-foot First Impression rigged to go dragging for scallops. He took two crew – his son, James R., or “Little James,” and Sorrento fisherman Jamie Bartow – to help handle the gear and shuck the tasty bivalves that, this winter, have brought fishermen an excellent price.
According to the Department of Marine Resources, the boat price for scallops has averaged around $13 per pound. The large scallops (the “U10s,” that is, 10 scallops or fewer to the pound) that West is happiest to land can bring as much as $14.50. Last winter, the average price was around $12.78 per pound, according to the most recent figures published by the DMR.
The high price – and strong landings in a fishery that appears to be on the upswing, possibly a result of strict conservation measures adopted by the DMR several years ago – have made it worthwhile to fish during the coldest, stormiest winter in recent memory. Only a couple of weeks before, West had to put a heavy, iron scallop drag in the bow of his skiff and use it to pound his way through thick ice from the launching ramp to his boat moored just a few hundred feet from shore.
“This winter has been terrible,” West said as First Impression pushed through some floating ice chunks into Frenchman Bay.
The Maine scallop season is 70 days long (50 days in Cobscook Bay) spread over nearly five months between Dec. 1 and April 9. The DMR reserves the right to close certain areas, or the entire season, if landings and survey data suggest that the scallop resource is in danger of being overfished.
“Truthfully, I thought it would be shut down by now,” West said as he steered the dragger out into Frenchman Bay.
In fact, by mid-March, the DMR already had closed several areas along the coast, Cobscook Bay (scheduled to close April 7), Casco Passage in Blue Hill Bay and the Bagaduce River among them, for the rest of the season.
Just before 7 a.m., the heavy iron drag went over the side for the day’s first tow. West had rigged the boat with a drag unit especially suited to the rocky areas where he particularly likes to fish. Another dragger, which has come to upper Frenchman Bay all the way from Stonington, is barely visible a quarter-mile away through the murky fog.
“And now we wait,” West said.
Twenty minutes later, West begins to haul back on the drag. It emerges from the water, swings high above the deck and is emptied onto a stainless steel culling table along the starboard rail.
As soon as the empty drag is back on the bottom, West joins his son and Bartow sorting the drag’s contents and culling the legal-sized scallops they’ve landed into a black plastic fish tote.
With another tow under way, the crew turns to shucking out the pearly white adductor muscles – the “meats” that are the only part of the scallop it is legal, in most instances, to land – in a small shelter on the opposite rail. Using short-bladed knives, “Little James” and Bartow quickly pry the scallop shells open at the hinge and shuck the meats into two buckets — one for the largest scallops. To the delight of the gulls, scallop guts, roe and empty shells sail over the side through small openings in the shucking house wall.
The work is finished just in time to bring another haul of scallops aboard and repeat the process that will go on throughout the day until West has either caught his daily limit of 15 gallons – about 130 pounds – of meats or grown tired of the process.
Although he has gone scalloping throughout the state, including Cobscook Bay, in recent years the most productive area, West enjoys “the home court advantage” when he is fishing in Frenchman Bay and “pounding the rocks” where, he said, he finds mostly larger scallops. Another advantage to working around the rocks, he said, is that he tows more slowly and uses about one-third the fuel he’d use towing a chain sweep on more open bottom. West described himself as an impatient fisherman.
“If I find a spot, and I get a bucket, I ought to stay there, but I’ve always got to look for more,” he said. “A lot of fishermen get a bucket (of scallops) and stay right there. At the end of the day, you’ve got something, but I’ve always got to look for more.”
Draggers that come to Frenchman Bay from elsewhere don’t know where the good spots are, West said. Some of them fish “on top” of the local boats, a practice West dislikes.
“I’m no angel,” he said, “but that’s not the way I was taught.”
West has been fishing most of his life. He bought and finished off the Canadian-built hull of First Impression in 1987, five years after graduating from high school and time spent dragging for sea urchins on other people’s boats. He’d wanted to buy a Duffy 35 or a Young Bros. 37, both popular boats at the time, “but they wouldn’t come down on their price.”
Fishing is a business, and West is a good businessman. While he was out scalloping, another captain was dragging for mussels aboard West’s 42-foot Hillary-Whitney, another Canadian-designed boat that West built in 2002 to replace a dragger that burned at sea.
He is in favor of giving the DMR authority to suspend or even revoke the licenses of fishermen who commit serious violations of the fisheries laws – dragging at night or keeping undersized scallops or short or v-notched lobsters.
He also has little use for a generation of young lobstermen that, he said, has learned where to set their traps only by watching experienced fishermen and who then “push a button” on their electronic chart plotter to record the prime fishing grounds.
By noon, the sun had come out has promised, and the mountains of Mount Desert Island were clearly visible across a sparkling bay. As the sun rose, though, so did a stiff northwest breeze keeping it chilly on the water.
As the breeze freshened, First Impression turned to head for the harbor. West planned to go back out to see if he and Bartow could land enough scallops to make the boat’s limit, but first the younger West had to be dropped off ashore.
James R., “I have a different middle initial, so I’m not junior,” he explained earlier in the morning while waiting for Bartow to pick him up in the skiff, is a student at Eastern Maine Community College. Next year, he plans to enroll at the University of Maine in Orono. That’s just fine with his father.
Although his son has a lobster license, and West is happy to see him use it to earn some money, during one of the morning’s tows he said, “I don’t want him to do this. I want him to get an education.”
If the younger West does leave the fishery – he is considering becoming a lawyer – he will both be compounding his father’s difficulty in finding a good sternman and a reflection of the aging of Maine’s fishing industry.
West said he wants to hire a sternman who “isn’t an addict, doesn’t drink and shows up every morning.” With each requirement, he brought his hands closer together to show the shrinking size of the pool of young fishermen who can meet them.
“It’s hard to find young guys who want to go into fishing,” his son said. Guys who finish high school and have done well want to go to college. That leaves “guys who hung around with the wrong kind of people and got into the wrong kind of activities,” he said. “It’s a hard life.”