Scallop fishermen were greeted with high prices and an abundance of scallops in Cobscook Bay on December 2, the opening day of the season -- along with an influx of draggers from other ports. The number of boats dragging in Cobscook Bay increased from about 60 on the first day last year to 120 this year. Eastport fisherman Scott Emery has heard that more draggers have since come Downeast and that even more may head to the bay. "I suspect we may get to 150 boats," he says.
Maine Marine Patrol officer Russell Wright of Lubec estimates that at least half of the draggers have come from ports to the westward, with some coming from Sullivan, Steuben and Milbridge. Wright expects the influx of draggers may thin out by January.
"A lot of areas down the shore are closed until January," Wright says of some of the limited access areas, so Cobscook Bay "is one of the few places open that's got good scalloping." Fisherman Tom Pottle of Perry adds that with the state's three-year rotational closure plan many of the better fishing areas are shut down this year.
"For years we take the brunt of it. It's still a derby fishery," says Emery. "They come up here and clean this out and then go home and go fishing." He believes the state should have fishermen choose a zone that they will fish through the season, so that they will only be allowed to fish in one zone, even if it's closed down.
Fishermen are pleased with the price, though, which has jumped from $9.50 a pound, the opening price last year, to as high as $13.25 a pound this year. "No one's squawking about the price among the fishermen," notes Emery. Concerning why the price is so high, Wright says he's heard that the federal scallop quota has been caught and there are not as many scallops on the market.
The fishermen also are happy about the amount of scallops in Cobscook Bay, as some have been getting their daily catch limit within half an hour to an hour. Pottle notes that he's been catching his 10 gallons a day in three tows.
"There are a lot of scallops around. It's one of the best years I've seen," says Wright, adding, "They are good-sized scallops, and the meats are good."
Emery, who is chair of the Cobscook Bay Fishermen's Association, says that the daily catch limit has helped spread the season out for fishermen. He believes the entire coast should adopt the lower catch limit of 10 gallons that is in effect for Cobscook Bay. "It would help the rest of the coast, and then fewer boats would come here if you could get your 10 gallons there." Although some fishermen have said they can't make a living on 10 gallons a day, Emery comments, "It must be worth it for them if they come here for 10 gallons." The catch limit in Zones 1 and 2 was reduced this year from 20 gallons to 15 gallons, as part of the state's efforts to rebuild the resource. Management measures have included establishing a rotational closure plan, limited access areas, daily catch limits and meat counts.
Pottle is not sure if the state's rotational closure plan is helping rebuild the resource. "The meat count and the daily limits are what's controlling the take," he says, along with the increase in the minimum drag ring size to 4", which helps "keep the small ones on bottom." He points out that the fishermen's association had pushed the state to adopt catch limits and meat counts. Pottle agrees with Emery that the catch limit should be reduced to 10 gallons along the entire coast. "If it's good for one boat it should be good for the other boat." He says the decision to make Cobscook Bay's meat count effective statewide should help the resource in the rest of the state, "if the enforcement is there." He notes that "the crooks love it," if there is a meat count with no enforcement. "The honest guy gets hurt if it's not enforced." He believes the Marine Patrol should at least attempt to "board every boat every day," or otherwise "guys will cut the small ones and take over the limit on a regular basis." Wright of the Marine Patrol says that during the first week he did issue five summonses in Cobscook Bay for infractions ranging from meat count violations to license issues to fishing too early.
Concerning the state's management efforts, Pottle continues, "If they encourage the boats from other zones to bring back the stocks where they come from, it will benefit the whole coast. As long as they know they can come here and pick up on these scallops, that's what they're going to do."
Emery wouldn't be surprised if the fishery in Cobscook Bay is closed early this season. During the past two seasons, the Department of Marine Resources has closed portions of Cobscook Bay before the end of the season. Although all of the fishermen are pleased about the price and about being able to get their catch limit quickly, Emery observes, "When it changes it will change quickly. Everyone right now is happy, but it's a lot of pressure in a small bay."
"If they all get scooped up, it will shorten the season for us," says Pottle. "They'll shut it down if the catches drop off drastically."
Pottle notes that the congestion of boats is not as bad as some years, and he believes "it's not a major safety hazard." For a period of years during and after the mid-1990s, close to 200 draggers were sometimes fishing in the bay.
More fishing area will open up in January, and the limited access area of Whiting and Dennys bays will open for one day a week to scallop draggers beginning on January 6 and one day a week to divers beginning on January 8. For the sea urchin early and late seasons, that area was opened to draggers on December 2. Urchin divers could begin on November 19, for the early season, or December 10 for the late season. Both draggers and divers have nine days total, whether they're fishing either the early or late seasons. Wright says there were perhaps 40 to 50 urchin draggers, but not many divers, particularly compared to the influx last year. "That's a hard river to dive if you don't know how to do it," he comments. Last year the urchin fishermen had found the roe count low in those bays, and they also received low prices.