Southwest Harbor scallop diver Andy Mays cuts out the innards of a scallop on his boat Lost Airmen in this March 2017 file photo. The federal government is limiting scallop catches for large vessels in the northern Gulf of Maine that, prior to this year, did not have any catch limits. Credit: Bill Trotter

New limits on the amount of scallops that can be harvested in part of the Gulf of Maine should help ease tensions between smaller boats from Maine and larger scallop vessels from Massachusetts during the upcoming federal scallop season, which is expected to get under way on April 1.

With the new rules, fishing boats that are restricted by the number of days-at-sea they can operate — the vast majority of which are based in Massachusetts — for the first time will have to adhere to catch limits in the Northern Gulf of Maine federal fishing area, which runs from roughly three miles from shore out to about 50 miles.

Boats with federal permits that restrict the number of days they can fish but which are allowed to fish anywhere along the East Coast cumulatively can catch only 65,000 pounds of scallops this year in the northern Gulf of Maine. In addition, only days-at-sea vessels that are participating in approved research projects will be allowed to fish in the area.

Prior to this year such boats faced no catch limits for scallops in the northern gulf and did not have to participate in research projects. Smaller Maine boats permitted only for the northern gulf have been limited to catching 200 pounds a day and, as a group, 70,000 pounds a year.

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The new limits are being welcomed by fishermen in Maine who have complained that the disparity was unfair. The larger boats were catching hundreds of thousands of scallops each year, threatening to deplete a resource that has rebounded in recent years, they added.

“It’s a huge change,” Chebeague Island fisherman Alex Todd, who chairs the state Scallop Advisory Council, said of the new catch limits. “I think it’s better protected this way.”

This year, the fleet of smaller Maine vessels — often called “dayboats” because they return to shore each evening — will have their catch limit increased from 70,000 pounds to 135,000 pounds.

For years, there were no catch limits for larger boats in the northern gulf because the area’s scallop stocks were considered too meager to attract the larger boats from more productive areas further south. In 2015, however, when Maine fishermen started getting decent catches in the northern Gulf of Maine, the larger boats started showing up.

The larger boats only had to stop fishing in the northern gulf when the Maine fleet permitted to fish only in that area cumulatively harvested 70,000 pounds. As a result, Maine fishermen fished the area as intensely as possible in order to quickly reach their annual limit, thus closing the area down and forcing the larger boats to depart.

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“We actually know how many scallops will be taken out of the northern gulf now,” said Kristan Porter, a Cutler fisherman and member of the New England Fishery Management Council’s scallops advisory panel, said of this year’s total catch limit of 200,000 pounds for all vessels. He added that, with luck, scallop stocks in the northern gulf will continue to grow.

Terry Stockwell, a former Maine Department of Marine Resources official who serves as vice chairman of the council, said that the total catch limit for all vessels in 2019 is expected to be reduced to 135,000 pounds, but what it may be after that has not been decided. He said the council plans to conduct a comprehensive survey of scallop stocks in the northern gulf to determine what catch limits should be after next year.

It’s possible that the larger boats with days-at-sea permits could end up getting back the lion’s share of scallop catches in the northern gulf, he said.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Stockwell said of the new catch limits, “but it’s not done yet.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is accepting public comments on the new harvesting rules for the Northern Gulf of Maine scallop fishing area until March 7. A seminar on the topic will be held at 2:45 p.m. Friday, March 2, at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.

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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....