Effective January 24, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) announced emergency rulemaking changes to the scallop season for Zone 3, which covers Cobscook Bay and the St. Croix River, similar to the rotational openings suggested by scallop fishermen during an industry meeting held in Whiting on January 17. On Mondays, Dennys and Whiting bays only will be open to draggers; on Tuesdays, Cobscook Bay -- East, South and Johnson's bays as well as Friar's Roads off Eastport -- will be open to draggers; and on Wednesdays, the St. Croix River only, north of Kendall's Head, Eastport, will be open to draggers. Divers will have the same rotation, but it will take place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. DMR staff will continue to closely monitor the harvest, and further closures are considered likely.
"The department is concerned," according to a statement released by the DMR, "that unrestricted harvesting during the remainder of the 2013B14 fishing season may damage sublegal scallops that could be caught during subsequent fishing seasons, as well as reducing the broodstock essential to a recovery in these areas."
This emergency rulemaking does not include a season reduction for Zones 1 and 2, which will be considered separately.
During recent days area scallop fishermen have reported bringing in their 10‑gallon daily quota with five or six tows, up only a bit from the three or four tows commonly reported at the start of the season in December. Fishermen have been wondering why the DMR is taking a management action to partially curtail the Cobscook Bay season, particularly with boat prices hovering in the $13 per pound range.
A standing‑room‑only crowd of fishermen gathered on January 17 in the Whiting Community Center meeting room to hear the rationale for cutting back the balance of this year's Cobscook Bay season. The 11 a.m. meeting came at about the mid‑point of the 50-day December to March season. DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher led the sometimes contentious question-and-answer session, following a discussion by DMR Resource Coordinator Trisha Cheney De Graaf.
According to DMR data provided at the meeting, the "estimated harvestable biomass" for Cobscook Bay, including Dennys and Whiting bays, is 380,100 lbs. "To date," the report states, "after fishing by 135 vessels, 278,100 lbs. has been harvested." By way of contrast, the 2012B13 season saw 50 boats harvest 191,160 lbs. from a total of 385,000 lbs. The DMR also pointed out that the total statewide yield during 2012 was 289,827 lbs.
"The Fisheries Management Plan has worked well," said De Graaf, pointing to the profitability of the Cobscook fishery and the recovery from the 2012B13 season. "But we want you guys to have something for next year, too." She pointed out survey information that showed "a high abundance" of sublegal scallops, many of which are expected to mature to legal size before the 2014B15 season. Research information, according to DMR, claims "incidental mortality on scallops caused by dragging has been estimated as at least 13‑17% per tow," which means continued dragging can jeopardize next year's harvest even if sublegal scallops are returned to the water as required.
The handout material also cited "incidental mortality to sublegal scallops," pointing to the number coming up that are in the 3.4 to 3.9 inch range, slightly below the minimum legal size of 4 inches. DMR Marine Patrol Officer Russell Wright pointed out, "We're starting to see an increased meat count the last few days," which would indicate that smaller scallops were being harvested, requiring more meats to make a gallon.
Several fishermen in the room questioned the validity of the biomass estimate, suggesting that it underestimates the available resource. "We do the best we can," replied Keliher, pointing to a lack of funding to expand the frequency of "research drags," which use a special dredge that brings up a complete sample rather than the commercial dredge with four‑inch rings that is intended to allow sublegal scallops to remain on the bottom. "Who in this room believes the survey is good?" asked Keliher. No hands went up.
To prevent overfishing, said Keliher during the meeting, the DMR evaluated three different possibilities for restricting effort during the remaining season. These included closing a portion of the bay completely until the 2014B15 season; reducing the open days to one per week for the remaining nine weeks; or reducing the open days to two per week and implementing "a more intense sampling" to monitor harvest quantity, leading to complete season closure when certain thresholds are reached. "The scientists want me to close it completely, right now," said Keliher.
Lubec's Tracey Sawtelle was the first to speak. "Who here wants to do one day a week? Give us the nine straight days, then close it," Sawtelle urged, to a chorus of approval from the audience. "Just not one day a week," he added.
Fisherman Wayne Wood questioned whether allowing scallops to become too mature was beneficial. "I've got over‑age scallops -- they're not so good -- up in the river," he said, describing "stringy meats." Keliher acknowledged that he'd heard a similar comment during an earlier meeting.
"Why does it take only two hours if 75% of the biomass is gone?" another fisherman asked, referring to the figure supplied by the DMR. "If we are wrong," replied Keliher, responding to a suggestion that the area be left open, "then everybody in this room will be hurt. Cobscook Bay cannot support the entire state of Maine." When he asked, "How many people want to see St. Croix [River] open if lower Cobscook is closed," approximately one third of the audience raised their hands.
"There's too many clappers [scallops that have died of natural causes] up there, I mean big ones," said one fisherman, pointing out that overpopulation may lead to depletion of food stocks and also suffocation of otherwise healthy scallops.
"Just as an aside," Keliher asked, "have you guys been seeing green crabs?" Most of the audience indicated that they had. The European green crab is an invasive species that was first believed to inhabit the intertidal zone and primarily threaten soft‑shell clams but is now understood to also live in deeper water where scallops are found.
"I'm hearing that people are looking for some way to keep it open for three days a week," Keliher said, to a chorus of approval from the audience. Suggestions were made to divide Zone 3, which is defined as the area north of the Roosevelt bridge, into three sectors and establish a rotating closure plan. This method, which has failed to attract local support in the past, is commonly used in other parts of the state. Keliher closed the meeting promising to announce his decision "by next Thursday at the latest."
In a related matter, on January 18 the DMR issued emergency closures for scallop fishing in Moosabec Reach, Jonesport; Inner Harbor/Deep Hole/Southeast Harbor, Stonington; Somes Harbor, Mount Desert Island area; Muscle Ridge, Spruce Head area, effective Fridays only; Damariscotta River and Medomak River. All of these areas are in Zones 1 and 2; specific information about these closures is available at <content.govdelivery.com/accounts/MEDMR/bulletins/9fdc04>.