ELLSWORTH, Maine — New restrictions on Maine’s scallop fishery are expected for next winter’s fishing season, and this past week state officials took their proposal on the road to see what kind of reception it would receive.

By all accounts, legal-size scallops were scarce this season, which ended a week ago, and more so than in the past two years. Declining numbers of scallops prompted the Maine Department of Marine Resources in 2009 to close down a dozen areas along the coast to scallop harvesting for three years.

Because those closures are scheduled to expire this year, state and industry officials have been floating ideas for new measures aimed at rebuilding scallop stocks and keeping the fishery sustainable.

The Scallop Advisory Council, a panel of industry officials appointed by DMR to advise the department on the fishery, last month came up with a list of recommendations that would place tighter restrictions on the industry. The council’s recommendations include that:

• The season be shortened from 70 days to 43 days.

• The daily catch limit per license be reduced from 200 pounds to 135 pounds (which already is the limit in Cobscook Bay).

• Fishermen can fish in only two reopened areas and have to tell DMR which two before the next season starts.

DMR officials, however, have come up with a different proposal. Instead of reducing the number of days or the daily catch limit, the state would create a 10-year schedule of rotating closures that would allow fishermen to catch up to the same limits they have now.

“The goal is sustainability, growth, and to put more money in your pocket,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher told a group of more than 40 scallop fishermen and other industry representatives at a meeting in Ellsworth last week. DMR also hosted similar meetings last week in Whiting, Milbridge and Hallowell.

Keliher said all the details of how the rotating closures would work have not been determined. What DMR is considering is creating four regions along the coast, with Cobscook Bay and the St. Croix River comprising one of those regions.

Each region would be subdivided into three sub-zones. In the first and second years of the rotating closure schedule, two of each region’s sub-zones would be open to harvesting and the third would be closed. In the schedule’s third year and each year after that, only one sub-zone in each region would be open to scallop fishing and the other two would be closed.

The zones would be created only for the purposes of the rotating closures and not to divide access among the fleet, according to DMR officials. Licensed fishermen from anywhere in Maine could fish in any open zone, just as they can now.

Keliher added that the department would like to have a relatively simple mechanism it could use to close down threatened areas in midseason.

DMR officials said scallop surveys show the closures of the past three years have been effective. Overall, the increase in harvestable scallops four inches in diameter and larger in the closed areas has increased 100 percent, they said, and in some areas it has increased even more. In Gouldsboro Bay, the number of harvestable scallops has increased 800 percent.

“We know there are scallops there — that it worked,” Keliher said.

DMR officials have said the feedback it has gotten so far to its rotating closure proposal has been mixed, though it has received more support at some meetings than at others.

The proposal is likely to be discussed further when the Scallop Advisory Council meets Wednesday, April 18, in Bangor. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Maine Department of Transportation building on Hogan Road, but that could change. People interested in attending should check the DMR website or call DMR Resource Coordinator Trisha Cheney DeGraaf at 624-6554 to confirm the time and location as the meeting date draws closer.

In 2009, when DMR nearly cancelled the second half of that year’s scallop season, only 85,000 pounds of scallop meat were harvested by licensed divers and draggers in Maine. That overall catch, for which the statewide fleet earned less than $600,000, was the third-lowest annual yield in Maine since 1950, according to DMR statistics. Only 2004 and 2005 had lower statewide scallops landings totals.

Since 2005, the average annual price per pound that Maine fishermen have been paid for scallops has hovered around $7 or $8, until last winter, when it was around $10. Fishermen caught 173,000 pounds of scallops in Maine in 2011 and that year were paid a total of $1.73 million for their efforts. Prices this past winter have been as high as they were last year, if not higher, some fishermen have said.

The historical peak of the fishery in Maine was in 1981, when fishermen harvested 3.8 million pounds of scallop meat and earned a total of $15.2 million for their catch.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....