ELLSWORTH — A Feb. 17 presentation on upcoming changes to Northern Gulf of Maine (NGOM) scallop fishery management drew a number of New England fishermen to listen to scallop leaders from the New England Fishery Management Council and agencies of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The biggest change for scallop fishermen is that vessels fishing in NGOM waters will be required to take industry-funded scallop (IFS) observers on board when selected to do so. Additionally, a portion of Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay will open for scallop fishing.
Hosted by the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, which is not holding its in-person annual conference this year, the webinar served to explain and answer questions on Amendment 21 to the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan and its regulatory framework.
That compliance framework is not yet completed but aims to meet Amendment 21 to the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan’s effective date of March 31. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) enacted Amendment 21 on Jan. 12 and is drafting Framework 34 to implement the changes.
The Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan was first established in 1982, with the New England Fishery Management Council setting annual catch limits for the scallop fishery.
Jonathon Peros, scallop lead for the council, led the presentation, with information also provided by Travis Ford, scallop lead for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office of NMFS, and Jessica Blaylock of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, who leads the scallop observer program.
The on-board observer program for all limited access general category (LAGC) vessels is new for the NGOM scallop fishery. Amendment 21 also revises individual fishing quotas for the LAGC.
A boom 2017 scallop season was one of the reasons the council looked to amend the scallop management plan, Peros said.
“2017 [was] probably the highest landings to date, when we had limited effort in the management unit,” Peros said.
The 2022 season begins on April 1, but until the Framework 34 is in place, Stellwagen Bank will stay closed, current regulations will remain by default and the industry-funded scallop (IFS) observer program will not be in effect.
But Peros said the council is hopeful to meet the April 1 target. “We think that’s a realistic timeframe,” he said.
The NGOM landing set-aside quota for 2022 is 661,387 pounds with a 200-pound trip limit. Peros said the season could last from one to two months, depending on the number of boats and individual landing numbers.
“Looking ahead, it’s difficult to predict,” he said. “If there were 100 active boats and removals at 20,000 a boat, we think the season would last a little more than a month.”
He noted that for the last two years, between 40 and 50 boats participated in the NGOM scallop fishery.
“It’s unclear to council staff what that number will end up at,” he concluded.
“You’re not looking at weather days?” asked Maine scallop dealer and council member Togue Brawn. “You’re just assuming that if every single day 20,000 pounds are caught, it will last 31 days.”
The answer was yes.
Limited access vessels with an individual fishing quota (IFQ) or NGOM permit can participate in the 200 pounds a day limit with no reduction. However, vessels operating as NGOM permit holders are limited to catching and landing scallops inside the management unit “while possessing scallops on that declared trip,” Peros said.
The IFS observer program requires fishermen to send a weekly email to find out if they have been selected to carry an observer the following week. If selected, it’s the permit holder’s responsibility to contact one of three IFS observer providers to arrange getting one on board.
“IFS observers collect data that we have no other way of obtaining,” Blaylock explained. “It has real-time information and specific details about the fishing activity that has spread throughout the year in all different spatial areas that we might not get to or learn about through surveys.”
“You can really track the scallops and get an idea of their general health,” she added. “It feeds back into sound management.”
The coverage rates for 2022 are not yet set, but selection rates are typically between 5 and 15 percent of trips, although the rate of observers on board is likely to be lower.
“Our biggest problem is likely going to be getting observers physically on the boat,” Ford said, because one may not be available for the boat selected to carry one.
IFS observers also check safety equipment and if violations are found, the boat can’t leave the dock.
“I just encourage folks to be aware of the expiration dates on safety equipment,” Blaylock said, “and be proactive that they’re up to date.”
The license holder pays the observer but is compensated by a higher catch allowance for that trip, Ford said. Compensation for the observer, and the catch compensation for the fishermen carrying an observer is not yet set.
“We will roll that out when the final Framework 34 goes through and we’re actually implementing the observer coverage,” Ford said.
When Stellwagen Bank does open for scallop fishing, Ben Haskell, NOAA’s deputy superintendent for the area, requested that vessels participate in the voluntary shipwreck avoidance strategy program in the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary.
“Part of our mission is actually do what we can to protect and interpret the historic shipwrecks in Stellwagen Bank,” he said. “What we’re asking is that you be aware of the locations and do your best to stay at least 400 feet away from these particular sites.”
Finally, scallop fishing permits are being issued online only through NOAA’s Fish Online portal.
Information presented at the talk can be accessed at www.mainefishermensforum.org.