ELLSWORTH, Maine — It may not be like 30 years ago, when Maine’s coastal scallop fishery was at its peak, but 2012 produced the highest value for the annual fishery in the past 12 years.

According to state officials, this is a sign that the strict conservation approach that Maine has pursued since 2009 is starting to show positive results. That strict approach is expected to continue, though some specific regulations may be changing, for the 2013-2014 season, which is set to begin early next month.

Scallop fishing in the 2012 calendar year netted nearly 290,000 pounds of scallop meat for Maine’s statewide scallop fishing fleet, according to statistics compiled by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. That is the highest landings total for the fishery since 2002, when 348,000 pounds were harvested.

Thanks to continued strong consumer demand for sea scallops, Maine fishermen earned a record average statewide price of $11.18 per pound in 2012, making the total value of last year’s haul $3.24 million. The highest statewide total prior to that was in 2000, when fishermen had a cumulative gross revenue of $3.88 million.

“Maine’s scallop fishery is vital to our state,” Gov. Paul LePage said recently in a prepared statement, adding that it helps to provide jobs and income for people who work in other fisheries, too. “I commend the dedication by those in the industry to make the necessary sacrifices to restore a resource that fuels our coastal economy.”

Patrick Keliher, head of DMR, said in the same statement that the new management approach has been “challenging,” but gave credit to fishermen for making it work.

“Their commitment to make necessary sacrifices and to work with us is now paying off,” Keliher said.

The 2012 totals still are a far cry from the early 1980s, when there were years during which the statewide scallop fleet netted more than 3 million pounds of scallop meat and were paid more than $10 million for their efforts. But last year’s numbers represent a significant improvement from the mid-2000s, when annual landings dipped below 60,000 pounds and the fleet earned less than $300,000. In 2004, fishermen on average were paid $4 per pound for their catch, which was their lowest average price since 1982, when it was $3.94 per pound.

In 2009, the state almost canceled the second half of the scallop season due to concerns about the numbers of scallops within Maine’s coastal waters. Instead, DMR shut down a dozen areas along the coast to scalloping and developed a rotating closure plan that lasted through early 2012. Prior to 2009, there were no closed scallop fishing areas along Maine’s coast.

This winter there will be nine limited access areas — fewer than last winter — that will be open only two days a week, one to draggers and one to divers.

There will be 12 relatively small areas spread out along the entire coast that will be closed for the duration of the season, which starts Dec. 2 and runs through March 21. In addition, between western Penobscot Bay and the Lubec-Campobello bridge there will seven other larger areas that will remain closed. DMR still will be able to close some areas down to fishing without advance notice, which it did several times last year.

Rule changes for the upcoming season include a longer season for Cobscook Bay and a reduced daily per-harvester catch limit along the rest of the coast. Fishing will be allowed for 50 days in Cobscook Bay, up from 44 days last winter, while the daily catch limit between Kittery and the Lubec-Campobello International Bridge will be 15 gallons, down from the 20-gallon limit that was in effect for much of last winter.

Trisha DeGraaf, resource management coordinator for DMR, said this past week that even with the restrictions, there is renewed interest among Maine fishermen in getting back into scalloping. She said that for several years before 2012, the number of active licenses in the fishery hovered between 200 and 250, but last year it “jumped” to more than 400.

She said Maine still has much to do in getting its coastal scallop stocks to be as productive as they have been in the past and that environmental factors — not just fishing effort — also figure into the mix. But she said the state’s efforts are paying off.

“I feel like we’re on the right track,” DeGraaf said. “Compared to 2005, this fishery is producing a lot and providing a lot more benefits to a lot more people, too.”

At a scallop fishery meeting this past week in Ellsworth, one fisherman suggested the conservation measures had helped to bring more stability to the industry, at least for the time being.

“With the 15-gallon limit, it’s not the free-for-all it used to be,” said Frank Jones of Stonington. “I’m actually looking forward to going [fishing] this year.”

James Markos, general manager of wholesale seafood company Maine Shellfish in Ellsworth, said this week he is not sure how long the current consumer demand for sea scallops — many retailers are charging more than $20 per pound — will remain high. He predicted that prices Maine coastal fishermen will get this winter for their scallops, which he described as “the best in the world,” will hold steady at around $12 per pound.

Markos said the market price for Maine scallops is closely linked to that of sea scallops caught far offshore on Georges Bank, though an argument can be made that scallops caught within three miles of Maine’s shore are fresher and taste better because they are delivered to shore and therefore to market more quickly. Scallops along Maine’s shore and on Georges Bank are the same species.

Scallops caught on Georges Bank, which separates the Gulf of Maine from the open Atlantic Ocean, dominate the market because the federally licensed offshore fishery is much larger. New Bedford, Mass., where much of the Georges Bank fishing fleet is based, netted more than $328 million worth of sea scallops in 2012, roughly 100 times the value of Maine’s coastal scallop landings in the same year, according to federal fishing statistics.

Markos said that though it has been difficult, he thinks DMR has taken the right conservation approach with Maine’s coastal scallop fishery. He said if it is managed properly, Maine’s fishery could grow and compete favorably with other scallop fisheries such as the one offshore.

“The Maine scallop fishery is recovering, albeit slowly,” he said. Given that 57.3 million pounds of scallops were harvested nationwide in 2012, he added, he sees no reason why Maine’s coastal fishery could not once again have annual harvests of 3 million pounds or more.

“Nothing will make me happier than that,” Markos said.

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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....