ELLSWORTH — The scallop fishing season got underway in eastern Maine earlier this month and is already making news.
In the waters between eastern Penobscot Bay and Cobscook Bay, the season for the handful of licensed scallop divers began Nov. 18 but the draggers couldn’t go to work until Dec. 2.
In Cobscook Bay, the season for draggers also began Dec. 2 but divers had to wait until Dec. 5 to brave the chilly, turbulent waters way Downeast.
The Department of Marine Resources manages Maine’s scallop fishery through a system of closures of large areas of the states waters on a three-year rotating basis and “targeted closures” of smaller areas to protect the scallop resource.
On Dec. 8, just six days after the start of the drag season, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher imposed an emergency closure banning fishing in an area at the eastern end of Moosabec Reach for the rest of the fishing season, which, for draggers, ends March 31, 2020.
The reason for the closure, DMR said, was the concern that continued harvesting in the area would reduce scallop broodstock and jeopardize the population of scallops still too small to be harvested.
Those scallops, DMR said, are “essential to the ongoing recruitment, re-growth and recovery of the scallop resource,” so the emergency conservation closure was needed “to reduce the risk of unusual damage and imminent depletion of the scallop resource” in Moosabec Reach.
Just three days before Keliher took action, the New England Fishery Management Council approved changes to the management plan that governs the scallop fishery in federal waters.
For the 2020 fishing year that begins next April 1, just about the time the Maine season closes, the new rules are expected to produce landings of roughly 52 million pounds worth some $487 million to fishermen. While lower than the 2019 projection of roughly 62.5 million pounds, scallop landings from federal waters will remain well above the historical average.
According to the NEFMC, scallops are not overfished or subject to overfishing, and the resource is considered healthy. The good news is, the council said in announcing the upcoming measures, the result of “conservative management.”
The 2019 scallop surveys reflected substantial numbers of large scallops from the “remarkably strong” 2012 and 2013 year classes.
Last year, the Maine Legislature established a lottery system for new entrants to the scallop fishery and DMR established separate lotteries for scallop dragging and scallop dive licenses based on the number of licenses surrendered or not renewed after the 2018-2019 season ended.
For the 2019 licensing year, six drag licenses were available, reflecting the nine drag licenses retired in 2018, and a new license ratio of 3:2.
Four dive licenses were retired and, with a ratio of 1:1, four new dive licenses were available.
Late last month, 10 lucky individuals were selected by a random drawing from lottery entrants. Among the winners of the six new drag licenses, one went to a Hancock County resident, Zachery Piper of Hancock, and two went to Vinalhaven residents.
Hancock County residents Benjamin Hardie of Stonington and Chad Grass of Bass Harbor qualified for two of the four available dive licenses. Two licenses were awarded to applicants between the ages of 18 and 30 and two went to applicants 31 years old or older.
It’s not hard to understand why harvesters want to get into the lucrative scallop fishery.
Although landings have been up and down over the past few years, DMR’s strict 10-year rotational management plan has helped rebuild the stock. But landings, and landed value, are still far from the peaks seen in the early 1990s before the fishery crashed.
According to DMR, as of mid-February, landings for the 2018-2019 season totaled 563,363 pounds — that is “meat weight,” not the weight of whole animals in the shell — worth about $5.94 million or about $10.54 per pound on average. The 2017-2018 season saw landings of 802,791 pounds worth some $9.42 million, an average of $11.74 per pound, the highest total since 1993.
According to DMR, the average price for scallops paid to harvesters topped out at $12.81 per pound in 2016.