AUGUSTA — A bill that would have expanded eligibility for commercial scallop licenses was voted “ought not to pass” unanimously by the state legislature’s Marine Resources Committee last Wednesday.
The hearing room was full of scallopers who missed one of the last days of the season to be there. All but one opposed the bill, LD 908, “An Act to Promote Sustainability in the Scallop Fishing Industry.”
Under the bill, any applicants who had previously held a scallop license in any year would be eligible for a license. It would have created a potential of nearly 1,000 new entrants to a fishery that had 438 active harvesters in 2014. It also would have created a 90-pound-per-day harvesting limit on scallops except those harvested through aquaculture (the current limit is 135 pounds, enforced as 10 gallons) and imposed a maximum width of 5 feet, 6 inches for scallop drags.
In presenting the bill, its sponsor, Representative Robert Alley of Beals, said he hoped to share the financial gains of a rebounding fishery with more harvesters, especially younger ones. “People are making money, and I want to keep it this way,” he said. “This fishery needs to be opened up to include all the communities in Down East Maine and along the coast.”
Alley said the proposed drag-size reduction came from a concern that larger drags may do damage to the ocean bottom. “It would only apply inside the outer islands. Some of these bigger drags are as big as a small car, too big to be in the bays, rivers and reaches.”
Only one person spoke in favor of the bill, a Port Clyde fisherman who has held a state scallop license in the past but didn’t renew it when the limited entry rules went into effect in 2009. “I was told there would be a re-entry period within three years,” he said. “We’ll be into 2016, and we still don’t have it.”
Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher led off the testimony against the bill. “While the Department (of Marine Resources) is interested in discussing any additional conservation measures that would assist in further rebuilding this resource, we are very concerned that opening up the fishery to all past participants, as the bill proposes, would jeopardize the delicate balance the Department has been able to achieve between the rebuilding goals and allowing a limited fishery,” he said. “In order to accommodate additional participation in the fishery from the latent fleet or new potential harvesters, other conservation measures and reductions would be required, beyond reducing the drag size and daily limit.”
Keliher said that the bill would not improve the outlook for younger fishermen hoping to get into the fishery, since it limits entry to previous license holders.
The DMR also opposed the drag size limit, Keliher said. “The current use of more restrictive drag sizes is generally the result of past attempts to exclude a section of the fleet which does not have a smaller drag in their possession.”
He said DMR scientists have searched scientific literature for information on how various drag sizes affect the bottom and found that little research has been done. Harvesters with large boats said they think they disturb the bottom less with their large drags. One compared the difference to using a backhoe: “if you want to dig a deep hole, you use the narrow side. If you want to skim, you use the wide side,” he said.
Many of those who testified expressed support for making regulatory changes through the DMR’s regulatory authority and the Scallop Advisory Council rather than through legislation. The next meeting of that group is set for April 16, at 6 p.m. at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer. “Much of what has been discussed here will be on the agenda,” Keliher said. “It is the Department’s commitment and my commitment to continue these conversations.”