Maine Scallop Fishermen Lukewarm on Rotational Closure

by Laurie Schreiber

Scallop fishermen vote informally on the concept of a rotational closure plan for the state fishery. 

In 2009, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) implemented closed areas for the state’s scallop fishery along the coast.

The closures expire on May 1. Many of the closed areas have seen rebounding scallop populations. That good outcome has prompted the DMR to come up with a 10-year plan that would continue to close areas to fishing on a rotational basis.

The DMR has been meeting with the Scallop Advisory Committee (SAC), an industry group charged with advising the DMR on the fishery’s management, to discuss management strategies once the closed areas open up, said DMR resource coordinator Trisha DeGraaf.

“We want an all-encompassing and long-term plan for the fishery,” DeGraaf told a gathering of about 50 fishermen on April 3, during one of four meetings hosted by the DMR with members of the scallop industry to discuss management options for the 2012-2013 season.

Recommendations from the SAC as well as industry input will be incorporated into the crafting of the rules for a rotational closure plan that will go out to public comment later this spring for implementation in the upcoming fishing year, DeGraaf said.

According to information from the DMR, Maine’s scallop resource is considered to be overfished, with fishery participants limited to a short winter season. Total landings for the scallop fishery peaked in 1981 at around 4 million pounds, valued at $15 million. Since 2003, landings have been less than 200,000 pounds, which is 4 percent of historic landings.

An integral part of the rebuilding plan was the implementation of conservation closures, representing 20 percent of Maine’s state waters, which have been closed to fishing since 2009. The closure areas are set to reopen for the 2012-2013 fishing season.

“While requests were received from some members of the industry to consider re-opening these areas for the current season, it was determined that the need to see through the conservation and rebuilding efforts in these areas to provide future fishing opportunities far outweighed the short-term benefit that would result from their immediate opening,” according to a DMR press release issued earlier this year.

The DMR’s goal, DeGraaf said, is to rebuild the scallop resource while allowing a limited fishery to occur.

The closed area scheme of the past three years has become integral in the DMR’s deliberations toward continuing to rebuild the resource, she said.

Closed areas have been shown to benefit rebuilding efforts around the world in other depleted fisheries, particularly when fishermen make “meaningful sacrifices” for the long-term good of the fishery, she said.

In the closed areas of the past three years, she said, “every area performed at 100 percent in terms of what was there before….Building on the momentum we’ve had, and learning from closed area management in the federal fishery and from other fisheries around the world, we’d like to take what we’ve gained and keep building on that.”

DeGraaf said the federal closed areas to protect habitat and groundfish populations in recent years have also helped scallop populations; when the federal closed areas opened to scallop fishing, the resource had rebounded.

“The federal scallop fishery is seen as a success story in this region,” she said.

According to the DMR, landings in the federal scallop fishery increased 480 percent, from 12 million pounds in 1998 to 58 million pounds in 2011, due to the implementation of closed areas and rotational management.

The Maine closure areas have resulted in increases in harvestable biomass, ranging from 100 percent to 800 percent, after two years of closure, the DMR said.

Currently, there are 13 closed areas, comprising 20 percent of Maine’s coastal waters; these closed areas will sunset on May 1.

In a new proposal drafted just days before the DMR hosted its industry meetings, the DMR proposes a 10-year plan with rotational management. The plan would divide the coast into regions. Zones within each region would open and close on a rotational schedule.

The plan would not require anyone to opt into a region; the fleet would remain mobile, she said.
“But the idea is, each year a new third of the coast opens up with rebuilt product,” DeGraaf said.

There would be a mid-plan assessment in the fifth year, that would consider survey data and industry input to assess the success of the plan, she said.

There also has been some discussion of permanent closures of areas that have been identified as essential for broodstock, she said. Those would be smaller, targeted closures, she said. And those areas would likely be protected from other gear types as well, she said.

Currently, there are about 700 license-holders in Maine. Only about 40 percent are active. In 2011, about 230 license-holders landed only one pound of product.

That means there’s a lot of latent effort – license-holders who haven’t been fishing but who might jump back into the fishery anytime, she said.

“We have to manage for people who might come into the fishery,” she said. “We know people are gearing up, that have been holding onto their license, who are thinking, ‘If they’re opening those closed areas, I’m going to go fishing next year,’” said DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher.

“So what does that mean? We know roughly how much biomass is within those areas and we know we want to take between 30 and 40 percent. If we go in and take all there is, then that three-year closure is all for naught. So we need to figure out how to control it. So one thought is keep it at 200 pounds and 70 days, and move toward rotation, but then figure how many days a week do we want to open up those closed areas as well….It’s a big unknown. And the SAC surely wrestled with it. The DMR has wrestled with it. You guys were wrestling with it. So that’s part of the bigger question – how many days a week do we want to open those closed areas?

With a 200-pound limit, with a trigger in place, we could just close it right down, but those closed areas could just last four or five days. So do we want four or five days all at once or a day here and a day there to help spread the product out?”

The regional aspect of the rotational closure scheme, DeGraaf said, is intended to spread effort along the coast by ensuring there is rebuilt product “in people’s backyards.”

At its March meeting, the SAC’s deliberations about how to manage the fishery, once the three-year closed areas open up again, focused on season length, declared areas, and harvest limits.
For the 2012-2013 season, the SAC voted to recommend a season length of 43 fishing days from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28, with 12 days in the closed areas; that was a drop from the 70 days of the 2011-2012 season, which began Dec. 17, 2011 and ended March 31.

The SAC recommended a daily limit of 135 pounds in both closed and open areas, down from the current 200 pounds. They voted that fishermen must declare into two closed areas before the start of the season.

The Penobscot East Resource Center has held a number of industry meetings to develop region-specific proposals that contain stop-harvest thresholds within closed areas, retaining portions of closed areas and additional closures.

The DMR’s proposed rotational management plan is based on creating four scallop regions along the Maine coast:

Region 1: western Maine from theNew Hampshire border to Pemaquid Point;

Region 2: mid coast/Penobscot and islands;

Region 3: Down East, Schoodic Point to Lubec interntional Bridge

Region 4: Cosbcook Bay/St. Croix River.

The plan proposes that, within these scallop regions, there will be three zones that each represent a third of the overall region. In each region, one of the three zones would close for two years. In year three, the closed areas would open up, and the other two-thirds of the coast would close. In year four, the thirds of the coast would go into full rotational management, she said.

“It will be the rotating of harvest opportunities among these zones that will constitute the rotational management strategy,” according to the DMR.

DeGraaf said the fastest way to rebuild the resource is to close the fishery. But, she said, the DMR does not want to go that route.

DeGraaf said the proposed closure areas are still in the concept stage. If the DMR decided to move forward with rotational closures, she said, the agency will have more “targeted regional meetings” with industry to decide on the delineation of the zones and the closed areas.

She said that limited entry is also an issue the DMR is discussing.

Scallop dragger Wally Gray of Deer Isle said he didn’t want to see any drop in the daily pound limit or number of days in the season.

Brooklin fisherman David Tarr agreed: “If a guy is fishing out of Rockland, he’s going to have to go to Frenchman’s Bay to fish, it’s a two-hour commute. We’re under a lot of stress. I fish for urchins and scallops, and I live by these calendars, and I’m fishing when it’s blowing 40. Sooner or later, someone’s going to get killed doing it.”

Wade Strout urged the DMR to let the management measures now in place do their work. He said the current season length, harvest limit and gear requirements, combined with the three-year closures, will be enough to bring back the resource.

“Everywhere is starting to show signs of growing,” said Strout. “If you let it alone, you’ll see gains.”

Some fishermen said that three years for a closure is too long; scallops in some of the current closed areas are getting smothered, they said.

DeGraaf said the new concept involves two-year closures – “kind of like rotating crops.”
Another fisherman said that cutting back on the daily limit or season will make it financially impossible for a boat captain to employ any crew.

One man said that some areas have been “dead” for years; closing them won’t help anything to grow there, he said. “It just seems like an awful lot of area to close if nothing is going to happen,” he said.

Gray wanted to know if the DMR would allow fishermen to opt into a vessel monitoring system (VMS). If fishermen could use VMS, he said, then they could travel further and stay on the water for more than a day at a time without having to land their 200 pounds each day. That would be a fuel-savings, he said, and it would also allow fishermen to land their catch at the market that makes the most sense wherever they are.

DeGraaf agreed that VMS might be an option for the state scallop fishery, but not for next year. VMS, she said, would also allow the fishery to have a days-at-sea system, which allows fishermen to pick which days they fish; rather than having to stick to a set schedule, which gets complicated by the weather.

Keliher said the SAC came up with the best plan it could with the limited management tools it had at hand.

But the DMR came out of the SAC meeting thinking, Keliher said, “there’s got to be a better way to skin the cat.”

Keliher said the DMR is aware that scallop fishermen need at least 70 days and 200 pounds to make a viable living. He said it’s also become apparent that the three-year closures have been a success.

“So we said, ‘Okay, let’s look at how the federal fishery has succeeded, let’s look at the information we’ve got inshore, that we’ve got with our own surveys, and figure out how we can move forward in a way that makes sense – [although] not perfect by any means, especially for the small boats,” Keliher said.

Keliher said the DMR will also be looking at a rotational closure plan for the urchin fishery. “I think it will benefit both resources,” he said. “But everyone in this room is going to have to want to agree on something. I’m not going to make everyone happy, that’s for damn sure. But I think, if we put our heads together and figure out the best way forward, that would be the way to do it.”

Keliher said he’s heard a fair degree of skepticism about the validity of the DMR’s survey work. But, he said, surveys will be useful for rotational closures insofar as the information will provide a better understanding of how much and where the product is, which areas would benefit from closures, and how long they should closed.

“The thing that really makes this piece work is having a trigger mechanism to close areas that need to be closed during the season,” Keliher said. “Cosbscook was obvious. Some say Blue Hill Bay was obvious. But I think we need to have some sort of an agreement with industry that, through the use of the Marine Patrol, through the use of our port samplers, and through the fishermen themselves, we have a system by which we can close areas that need to be closed. I don’t know what that system will look like. But I think the trigger mechanism coupled with rotational scheme may be a good way to go – if the industry buys into it.”

Keliher’s Cobscook reference pertained to DMR’s emergency closure on Jan. 2 of East and South Bays in Cobscook Bay, following reports of small catches, small meats and large quantities of sublegal scallops sustaining damage as a result of fishing pressure.

Keliher said that any rotational management proposal would take about 100 days to go through the state’s rulemaking process. He said he would like to see the plan in place by the beginning of the 2012-2013 season.

One man said that different areas are going to need different management.

“I don’t see this closing huge areas as being the right fit for everything,” he said. “It might work Down East where scallops are rebounding tremendously. But I don’t see it working inside bays where scallops are moving around. That’s a whole different aspect.”

“That’s why we’re talking about it,” responded Keliher.

One man suggested that the DMR should not rush through the rotational management plan and should take another year to come up with a better plan.

“This fishery has been limping along,” Keliher responded. “What I’ve been hearing constantly is, we need to do something.”