ELLSWORTH — Friday is April Fools’ Day and the joke may be on Maine’s scallop fishermen, though they may be laughing all the way to the bank.
In December, the last month for which the Department of Marine Resources has released figures, dealers reported Maine scallop landings of 159,845 pounds with a boat price of about $13 to $14 per pound — just over $2 million in all for the month. Although the price was high, the reported December landings were the lowest since 2012.
Maine waters are divided into three scallop fishing zones and in two of them — along all of the coast except in Cobscook Bay way Downeast — the fishing season lasts until April 15. The question is whether there will be anyplace left to fish.
The 50-day season in Cobscook Bay, where harvesters have a daily limit of 10 gallons of shucked scallop meats, ended last Friday although, after the DMR implemented emergency closures on Whiting and Dennys bays in early February, only the sliver of water in the St. Croix River remained available to harvesters. Even in that area, fishing was limited to one day per week.
In Zone 2, which includes the area between Quoddy Head and roughly the middle of Penobscot Bay, the fishing season is 70 days long, and harvesters are entitled to land 15 gallons of shucked scallop meats. After March 30, scallop draggers will have six more fishing days in April. Scallop divers get March 31 and nine more days in April to explore the sea bottom for valuable bivalves, but both groups of harvesters will be extremely limited in where they can fish.
In Zone 2, the state has adopted a “rotational management” system that closes predetermined areas of each fishing zone for two years, then opens it to fishing. Zone 1 (from the New Hampshire border to western Penobscot Bay) and Zone 3 rely on shorter seasons (60 days in Zone 1) and the delineation of several areas in which fishing is allowed just a few days each season to manage the scallop fishery.
This year, the third in which the rotational system was in use, only a few relatively small areas were open in Zone 2 when the season began. Before the season was two weeks old, the available fishing area shrank as DMR shut down fishing in Gouldsboro and Dyer bays, Wohoa Bay and Jonesport section of Moosabec Reach and inner Machias Bay.
A reappraisal of data from DMR scallop surveys led the department to reopen those areas in mid-March. The first day these areas were reopened, 50 boats were reported fishing in Gouldsboro and Dyer bays with most catching their 15-gallon limit by early afternoon. Two days later, according to DMR, 33 boats were fishing in the two bays and only a handful reached their daily limit.
Within a week, DMR again imposed emergency closures in those areas and also closed previously open fishing grounds in upper Blue Hill Bay, around the eastern end of Eggemoggin Reach and Jericho Bay.
The rationale, according to the department’s announcement, was that “direct input” from the Marine Patrol and independent fishing industry participants suggested that fishing effort in those areas during the season had “likely exceeded” 30 percent of the scallop biomass, a removal target that department scientists believe leaves enough broodstock and sublegal scallops in the water to let the fishery continue to rebuild.