EASTPORT, Maine — A petition that surfaced this week throughout Washington County asking the Maine Department of Marine Resources to reconsider last week’s decision to immediately close much of Cobscook Bay to scallop fishing is an exercise in futility, according to DMR Acting Commissioner Pat Keliher.
“It’s not going to happen,” Keliher said Thursday. “I met with the governor earlier this week, and he continues to be supportive of this emergency closure, looking at it from a long-term perspective.”
The Cobscook Bay closure took effect Jan. 2 and prohibits dragging or diving for scallops in the east and south bay regions. With that closure there are now 13 noncontiguous areas along the Down East coast that are off limits to scallop fishermen, representing more than 10 percent of the state’s scallop fishery.
Keliher said the closures have been implemented as a conservation strategy designed to allow juvenile scallops to mature to a legal size. The other 12 areas have been closed since 2009 and are scheduled to be phased back into production during the 2012-13 fishing season. Keliher has rejected suggestions that those 12 areas be reopened immediately, at least for a few days each week.
“Without opening alternative areas, this essentially places a severe hardship on scallop fishermen by eliminating their source of income,” the petition language reads in part. “We, the undersigned, offer as an alternative plan the opening of currently closed scallop areas statewide for two days a week for the remainder of the 2011-12 season.”
Forget about it, Keliher says.
“We’re looking at those closed areas as an investment,” Keliher said. “Opening those as part of the current effort would set us back two years. When they are reopened, I’m committed to working with the Scallop Advisory Board in looking at rotational closures, catch limits and limiting entry.”
Keliher said he and his staff have fielded more phone calls from fishermen supporting the Cobscook Bay closure than from those who oppose it. Among those supporters is Scott Emery of Eastport, who is president of the Cobscook Bay Fishermen’s Association.
“Last year this bay was fished so hard that a lot of the 3 ½-inch scallops were shocked out,” Emery said, leaving few to mature to legal size of 4 inches. “The season is too long, and there are so many boats that they have completely destroyed that bay.”
Emery said much of the problem is due to what he terms “Western boats,” a flotilla of as many as 50 draggers that come to Cobscook Bay from Cutler, Bucks Harbor, Jonesport and points further west.
“This mobile fleet travels up and down the coast, and, when they find a bunch of scallops, they are on them like wolves,” Emery said. “Three or four days later, there’s nothing left. They rape this bay and then go home and finish up the season in their neighborhood, leaving us with nothing.”
A scallop fisherman for most of his 63 years, Emery doesn’t think the closures now in effect go far enough. “Why not shut the whole damn coast down?” he said. “Let’s bite the bullet and get it over with. I know everybody has to make a living, but you won’t if you fish it to death.”
Will Hopkins, executive director of the Eastport-based Cobscook Bay Resource Center, said Thursday he also endorses the closure.
“There are a lot of scallops here, but just too many boats for what’s out there,” he said. “A lot of guys knew things were pretty bad when they weren’t getting their limit on the first day of the season. Two years ago, they might go 35 days into the season before they were having trouble getting their catch limit. I’m afraid we’ve lost the last good scallop grounds in the state.”
When DMR officials announced the latest closure on Dec. 28, they noted that Maine scallop landings have declined from a peak of nearly 4 million pounds in 1980-1981 to less than a half million pounds each year since 2001. DMR began dredge-based fishery surveys of the state’s scallop resource in 2002, with surveys in 2006 and 2007 indicating that Cobscook Bay had the highest scallop density in the state, by far. The 2010 survey showed Cobscook Bay to be the only area exhibiting relatively high scallop production in recent years.
But that relative abundance also attracted more than 100 boats to Cobscook Bay in some years, according to the DMR. During the last two seasons, a majority of scallop boats in Cobscook Bay landed at or near the 135-pound daily limit throughout the first three weeks of the season, with catches dropping off by January. That hasn’t been the case this season, which opened Dec. 17. By the third day of this season, fewer than half of 16 boats sampled by the DMR were landing at or near the daily limit, with a mean catch weight of 103.8 pounds.
“Scallop populations throughout the state, including Cobscook Bay, are at extremely low levels,” the DMR said in December. “The department is concerned that unrestricted harvesting during the remainder of the 2011/2012 fishing season may deplete a severely diminished resource beyond its ability to recover.”
Hopkins said he doesn’t want to see Cobscook Bay go the way of Gouldsboro and Frenchman bays in Hancock County. Both were once thick with scallops, but not any more, due to overfishing.
“Last year there were over 100 boats here, and they stayed for much of the season,” Hopkins said. “All the legal scallops were dragged, and I think a lot of under-sized scallops were taken last year, too, scallops that would have been legal this year. The entire scallop fleet made their living in Cobscook Bay last year. So why are people surprised that there’s nothing here now?”