TREMONT — After an eight-month hiatus during which, like summer tourists, the only scallops in local stores are “from away,” the Maine scallop fishing season is finally opening, at least for a handful of harvesters.
All along the coastline, licensed scallop divers are allowed to start fishing for the succulent bivalves on Thursday, Dec. 1. Dragger fishermen will have to wait to wet their gear until next Monday, Dec. 5.
The season opens on an optimistic note. Over the past five years, scallop landings have increased steadily, from just over 175,000 pounds of scallop meats (about 1.5 million pounds in the shell) during 2011 to almost 453,000 pounds in 2015.
As in the past several years, fishermen will have a 60-day season in state waters between the Maine-New Hampshire border and western Penobscot Bay (Zone 1), a 70-day season in the waters between eastern Penobscot Bay and the Lubec Narrows bridge (Zone 2) and a 50-day season in Cobscook Bay, the state’s most productive scallop fishing grounds.
Fishermen are subject to a daily possession limit of 15 gallons (about 135 pounds) of scallop meats in all state waters except Cobscook Bay, where the daily limit is 10 gallons.
Because commercial fisheries landings are generally reported on an annual basis, it is can be difficult to tease out how well the fishery did during a single season which incorporates parts of two calendar years. Dealers can also be slow to report landings information.
That said, during the 2014-2015 fishing season, Maine harvesters landed about 525,000 pounds of scallops worth some $6.5 million. Virtually all of those scallops came from state waters – inside the three-mile limit.
The number of active scallopers has increased steadily over the past seven years.
According to Trisha Cheney, a resource management coordinator at the Department of Marine Resources, 635 harvesters – 77 divers and 558 draggers – had licenses to fish for scallops last year and are eligible to get licenses in 2016. Of that group, Cheney said, 445 licensed harvesters actually participated in the fishery. There were, she said, 52 active divers, 373 active draggers and 20 “unknown” harvesters whom the DMR can’t identify as working in either category. In 2009, only 168 harvesters fished for scallops in Maine.
The increased number of harvesters reflects both the high price fishermen receive for their landings – $12.70 per pound in 2015 – and perhaps something of an increased abundance of scallops in Down East waters that some fishermen attribute to an aggressive management program the DMR implemented before the start of the 2012-2013 season.
The system established a rotating group of closed areas in Zone 2 where fishing was prohibited for one or two seasons to allow scallop stocks to rebound. The management program also established several “limited access areas” in which fishing is severely restricted and several “targeted” closed areas where fishing is banned.
Targeted closures and limited access areas were used without rotational closures in Zones 1 and 3.
This season, the DMR has established a new limited access area in Somes Sound where divers – who use SCUBA gear and scour the sea floor for scallops by hand – will be limited to 20 fishing days. Draggers – boats towing heavy iron and chain drags along the sea floor – will get just 13 days in the area during the 21-week season.
The extra days are a source of some contention between the two groups of fishermen, although divers harvest less than 10 percent of Maine’s scallop landings. The additional days were allotted to divers, Cheney said recently, to allow for times when the winter weather on some of the permitted fishing days might be too bad for divers to work in relative safety.
In Zone 2, there is another limited access area in the eastern part of Moosabec Reach.
In the inner reaches of Cobscook Bay way Down East, Dennys Bay and Whiting Bay constitute a single limited access area in which both divers and draggers will have 17 fishing days – one each week during the 17-week season. In the western part of the state, Zone 1, draggers will get 15 days, and divers 18 days, in the limited access areas around Harpswell Neck and the Damariscotta River.
In Zone 2, most of the fishing will occur in the seven rotational management areas – ranging from a stretch along the shore off Cutler in the east to a section of mid-Penobscot Bay in the west – that are open this season. Locally, open areas include an area south of Stonington and east of Isle au Haut, a portion of lower Blue Hill Bay and Jericho Bay, and an area south of Mount Desert Island including the Cranberry Islands and Great Duck and Little Duck islands.