Due to heavy fishing pressure, a hotly-contested federal scallop management area in the Gulf of Maine is being shut down by federal regulators two months earlier than it was last year.

The Northern Gulf of Maine area will be closed to scallop fishing as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, March 23, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday.

Over the past few years, fishermen on smaller boats based in Maine have been engaged in a feud with their counterparts on larger vessels from further south over fishing practices and restrictions in the area.

Jennifer Goebel, spokeswoman for NOAA’s Great Atlantic Region Fisheries Office in Gloucester, Mass., said Wednesday that the area is being closed down because vessels permitted specifically to drag for scallops in that area have reached their cumulative annual limit of 70,000 pounds. The season in the northern Gulf of Maine opens each year on March 1.

The dispute between smaller boats permitted specifically to drag for scallops in the management area and larger vessels that can drag for scallops anywhere along the East Coast is over catch limits in the northern Gulf of Maine. The smaller boats, many of which are based in Maine, are limited to catching only 200 pounds a day while the larger boats, which are limited only by the number of days at sea they can fish, face no daily catch limit.

Scallops harvested by the days-at-sea vessels do not count toward the 70,000-pound annual limit, which in recent years has resulted in the large boats harvesting many times that amount — up to 300,000 pounds — before the smaller boats trigger the area’s closure by reaching their catch total.

Maine-based fishermen subject to the daily catch limits have said the lack of such limits for the larger boats is a result of federal mismanagement and could threaten the long-term viability of scallop stocks in the area. Officials with the New England Fisheries Management Council, which sets policy for federal fisheries in the region, have said they plan to take up the issue this spring to see if tighter restrictions should be put in place.

Goebel said that last year, the northern Gulf of Maine area was closed to scallop fishing in mid-May. The fact that it is being closed two months earlier this year indicates that fishing pressure in the area has been more intense than in 2016, she said.

Goebel added that NOAA Fisheries law enforcement officials told her that electronic readings of fishing activity in the northern gulf “look like a bird’s nest” from all the heavy traffic of fishing boats in the area trying to maximize their scallop catches before they have to stop fishing. She said there have been no reports of confrontations between competing vessels in the management area.

The United States’ $438 million sea scallop fishery in the North Atlantic has been one of the bright spots in commercial fishing in the Northeast over the past several years.

While catches of several other species have languished, in Maine the volume of scallop landings has been relatively high over the past four years, compared to the preceding decade. At the same time, demand has soared, pushing the average price fishermen have earned for their catch to new highs in each of the past six years.

Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree released a joint statement Wednesday evening expressing support for the closure and calling for improved management of the resource to ensure that scallop catches in the area are fairly allocated and sustainable.

Boats that have Maine scallop permits will be allowed to continue fishing in the gulf beyond tomorrow’s federal closure, but only in state waters, which lie within roughly three miles of shore. Maine’s state scallop season goes until mid-April in western Maine and until late March in Cobscook Bay, for both draggers and divers. Between Penobscot and Cobscook bays, the season ends in late March for draggers and in mid-April for divers.

Larger vessels with days-at-sea permits will be able to continue dragging for scallops in other federal management zones after the northern Gulf of Maine closes early Thursday morning.

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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....