Some 83 scallop draggers are finding high prices but slim pickings in Cobscook Bay this year, and many fishermen are asking that the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) close the bay, or perhaps the entire Maine coast, for the rest of the season to allow the resource to recover. The Cobscook Bay fleet was joined on the opening day, December 17, by about an equal number of draggers from other ports, including Cutler, Bucks Harbor and Jonesport.
"We're receiving a lot of calls" from fishermen who are asking that the bay be closed, says Trisha De Graaf, marine resource management coordinator for the DMR. "They're concerned about the resource." The last time the bay was closed by the DMR because of risk of imminent depletion of the resource was in 2009, but some fishermen were upset then that only Cobscook Bay, and not the rest of the state, was closed.
"The season is too long for what scallops there are," says Eastport fisherman Scott Emery of the 74-day season. He comments that there are a lot of scallops, but many are around 3" or so, which is under the 4" minimum legal shell size. While in previous years fishermen would be getting their daily catch limit of 135 pounds by 10 in the morning or noon on the first few days, this year many of the fishermen never reached the quota after dragging all day, even on the opening day. Perry fisherman Tom Pottle reports that on the third day "at least one boat had its quota" of three five-gallon buckets, but "two buckets were common." Marine Patrol Officer Russell Wright of Lubec notes, "It's one of the worst years I've seen for quite a few years."
De Graaf points out that the DMR has to base a decision on closing the bay on data about the resource. Port samplers have been interviewing fishermen and taking scallop meat weights, and harvesters need to report their landings on a monthly basis to the DMR landings program. However, many wait until the end of the year to file the reports, but De Graaf says that if they send them in at the end of December it will help the DMR evaluate the resource in the bay. Along with sending in reports in a timely manner, it also would be helpful if fishermen include information about their tow times. In addition to information from fishermen, the DMR is receiving reports from the Marine Patrol that there are nearly 100 boats in the bay and it is taking them all day to reach their catch limit. How quickly the DMR makes a decision on closing the bay because of the risk of imminent depletion of the resource will depend in part on how quickly fishermen submit their landings, De Graaf says.
"If they start fishing on the sublegal scallops, it would be a detriment to the resource," says De Graaf, noting that fishermen may be tempted to cut small meats if they are having a hard time finding legal-size scallops. She notes that "the guys had high hopes" for the fishery this year. With the shrimp quota cut in half, "they were hoping that scallops would be a strong winter income."
Emery believes the stocks are down because last year the boats "fished them so hard all during the season," since there was a good price of around $9 a pound. The previous year the price had started at $6.75. He also believes that last year fishermen "cut smaller stuff" that was under the legal limit. "They would have been this year's scallops, and they're not there."
Emery heard that some fishermen found scallops this season that had been shucked that were only a 3 1/2" size. Marine Patrol Officer Wright says he did issue one summons for undersized shell stock on December 19.
Pottle agrees with Emery about the taking of sublegal scallops last season, stating, "I feel a lot of this year's marketable scallops were taken last year -- ones that were just under the gauge." He adds, "We're not seeing the year class" of scallops that are above the minimum size. "Money makes people do things they wouldn't normally do."
Pottle says if some action is not taken this year "it will be worse next year." Because of the high price, he believes fishermen will "cut them down" through the season and be tempted to cut small scallops. He notes that a number of fishermen from ports to the westward are also favoring closing the bay this year. "They recognize the importance of management and being flexible with the season." He proposes leaving the bay open for a few weeks, which would "give the guys a chance to fish on what's legal, and then give it a rest."
However, Pottle would like to see a lot of fishermen favor the closure before that action is taken. "Every individual has different financial needs," he notes. He could do other work, and a closure would mean that he "would be enthusiastic about going fishing next year. It would be a light at the end of the tunnel." However, it might be "rough on a lot of guys through the winter," if they couldn't fish. He suggests one alternative would be to have fewer days open for fishing during the week, which might help stretch out the season through the winter.
Emery expects boats from the other ports won't stay too long this year, and he expects some urchin fishermen will keep "picking away" at that fishery, rather than fish for scallops. Although the price for scallops is high this year, between $10 and $11 a pound, fuel costs are cutting into any profits, because the boats are dragging all day. Pottle notes he's paying around $120 a day in fuel.
Some fishermen have suggested that the areas currently closed to scallop fishing be opened up, but De Graaf says the DMR cannot take that action. They will not be opened until next December. The Scallop Advisory Council is considering measures to prevent a derby fishery when those areas are opened. De Graaf notes that in Whiting and Dennys bays the scallop biomass has increased by five times.
Pottle notes that a closure of the entire bay this year would help spread out the fishing pressure next year when the closed areas in the bay are reopened. If the bay stays open this year, "they'll all go to the closed area, and it will be a safety hazard," with many boats dragging close together.
Concerning safety precautions, Emery says a few fishermen have dropped the towing block for the drag, which is a safer method of dragging, but "there are a lot of diehards who don't want to spend the money." Wright says some fishermen are being a little more cautious, but most are rigging their vessels as they have before. As for the risk they're taking of having their boat sink because of towing from a high block, he observes, "Their motto is they believe it will never happen to me."
Fishermen with questions or comments about closing the Cobscook Bay fishery can call De Graaf at 624-6554.