The Maine Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources will hear a bill Wednesday that would put additional regulations on Maine’s scallop fishery at a time when the fishery is growing in both volume and value. The Bill, “An Act To Promote Sustainability in the Scallop Fishing Industry” (LD 908), sponsored by Rep. Robert Alley, D-Beals, imposes a maximum width of five feet, six inches for scallop drags, reduces the trip limit to 90 pounds per day and opens up the existing limited entry permitting system to anyone who previously held a hand fishing scallop license or scallop dragging license. Many fishers and industry advocates argue effective regulations need to acknowledge the diversity of the State’s scallop fishery instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA) is opposing the Bill, arguing the Legislature is the wrong place to make fisheries management decisions such as these. “While we recognize that this bill was developed with good intentions,” says Ben Martens, executive director of MCFA, “the Department of Marine Resources has done a fantastic job rebuilding and protecting this fishery and should be allowed to continue that good work. Maine fishermen need to have a voice in the decision-making process and the DMR has shown to be willing to work with fishermen and listen to their needs in developing policy and regulations.”
Rebuilding a Valuable Fishery
In 2005, the Maine scallop fishery had collapsed with around 33,000 pounds landed and a total value well below $300,000. According to the most current publicly available Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) data, 584,173 pounds of scallops were commercially landed in Maine in 2014 with a value of around $7.46 million–the sixth highest annual value for the fishery since DMR began keeping records. By nearly any metric, Maine’s scallop fishery is rebounding, which makes some question if sweeping changes to the regulations by legislation crafted in Augusta are appropriate.
The ongoing recovery of Maine’s scallop fishery has not been left to chance. While a relatively hands-off approach to managing the scallop fishery dominated previous boom-bust cycles, by 2005, things were so bad that DMR began looking for a new approach to management. Togue Brawn, who today owns Maine Dayboat Scallops and has been referred to as “Maine’s scallop evangelist,” worked with DMR from 2007 to 2011 as one of three resource management coordinators. She says that while working with DMR, she was “obsessed” with bringing Maine’s scallop fishery back, and many people credit her work with establishing the foundation upon which today’s successes are built.
A Better Managed FisheryWhen Brawn started working on the scallop fishery with DMR, she says “the few constraints that existed were put in place more to prevent gear conflict with the lobster fishery [rather] than to protect the scallop resource or the scallop fishery.” Something needed to change of the fishery was going to survive, much the less be considered truly sustainable. Working with Maine’s Scallop Advisory Council and with industry, Brawn identified, and then began implementing, solutions to help foster a recovery.
Limited entry, whereby the number of scallop fishing permits issued would be capped, was the first order of business. “We knew bringing [the scallop stock] back would take a long time and would require a lot of sacrifice from the active fishermen,” says Brawn about the decision to work on limited entry first. It was important to Brawn and the Scallop Advisory Council at the time that any incremental gains would not be eradicated by new entrants into the fishery. In 2008, DMR advised limiting the issuance of 2009 scallop licenses to only those fishers who had held a scallop license between 1 January 2005 and 31 December 2008.
“Unfortunately,” Brawn says, “the Legislature changed the limited entry specifications, so rather than limiting licenses to those who had held one in one of the past three years, they limited it to those who’d held a license in one of the past three years, or anyone who bought a license in the subsequent 30 days.” Not surprisingly, many fishers bought licenses so they’d qualify. “It was completely counter to the purpose of limiting entry and it also wasn’t fair because not everyone knew about it,” says Brawn.
Nonetheless, in 2009 the scallop fishery became a limited entry fishery, and while it would remain so even if LD 908 passes in its current form, the number of scallop fishers could increase dramatically because of the change in eligibility requirements set out in the Bill.Other Management Measures
In addition to creating a limited entry fishery, DMR also cut the scallop season in half, established a 200 pound daily limit, restricted gear, and closed up to 20 percent of the coast to scallop fishing. Brawn left DMR in 2011, but the new resource management coordinator, Trish Cheney, continued the work rebuilding the fishery. Most significant, Cheney established three zones and tailored management in each zone to match the resource and fishing practices in each area.
The zone-by-zone approach to managing the scallop fishery has been essential to rebuilding efforts and to increasing the value of the fishery. Those familiar with the fishery know the scallop resource in Cobscook Bay is very different from the resource in Casco Bay, and managing both with statewide regulations that don’t acknowledged those differences is ill-advised according to fisheries managers.
“I’m sure Representative Alley has good intentions,” says Brawn, “but he doesn’t understand what a delicate balance has been struck between resource and economic sustainability. What makes sense in Jonesport does NOT make sense in Portland. Suggesting we make across-the-board changes that don’t account for fleet and resource diversity from Cobscook to Kittery just shows you don’t understand Maine’s scallop fishery.”
LD 908 – Sweeping Statewide ChangesAs the fishery has rebuilt, so too has the harvest, and some believe that additional restrictions are necessary to maintain sustainability. This is especially the case if the number of permits is allowed to jump significantly, as it could under LD 908. While Rep. Alley, the Bill’s sponsor, did not respond to interview requests prior to publication, it can be assumed that he and the Bill’s other supporters believe fisheries managers are failing to manage the fishery appropriately and that the Legislature must step in–hence LD 908.
LD 908 would make changes to three main areas of the fishery: gear size, daily limit and permitting. If LD 908 passes in its current form, the maximum dredge size would be reduced to five feet, six inches statewide instead of the current 10 feet, six inches that applies to most state waters (some bays have lower limits). The daily limit would be reduced from 135 pounds to 90 pounds (although the actual limit is measured in gallons, not pounds), and the fishery would be opened to to anyone who previously held a hand fishing scallop license or scallop dragging license.
The last point–increasing the number of fishers eligible to get a scallop license, is one of the more complex and contentious aspects of LD 908. As Maine’s fishing industry has suffered with dramatic quota cuts in iconic species like cod and moratoriums on small but valuable fisheries like the Maine shrimp fishery, providing more opportunities for fishers to fish seems like a good idea to many. Even the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, which opposed the Bill, says it recognizes the good intentions behind LD 908–allowing new entrants into a fishery when many in the fishing industry are struggling.
“I sympathize with the people who’d like to enter this fishery,” says Brawn. “But this fishery has made huge gains in recent years because we were willing to make tough choices. The only way to bring about long term gains in fisheries is to implement short term pain.” Brawn emphasizes that fishing effort has already been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be. “Overall the pie has grown and we should be proud,” she says, “but the size of individual slices has in many cases been reduced.” Brawn says it’s not fair to say “I think we should make continuously smaller slices so everyone can have pie.”
In addition to more fishers becoming eligible for scallop licenses if the Bill passes, the current language of LD 908 appears to apply the possession limit to the license holder, not the vessel. If the daily limit is applied to the license holder, it could allow fishers to “stack” licenses on a single boat (right now the license is on the boat, not the fisher). Some think that is a very bad idea.
For its part, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is emphatic that any new regulations that would allow new entrants into the fishery should be done through a process developed by DMR–not through legislation.
Current Management WorkingOver the past seven or eight years, the Maine scallop fishery has seen dramatic regulatory changes, and those opposed to LD 908 argue that current management is working. “These regulations were not always embraced by fishermen, but in 2014, over 584,000 lbs of scallops were landed with a value of roughly $7.4 million, leaving little to be debated about the success of the hard work and sacrifices that have been made to rebuild this fishery,” wrote the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in a 24 March letter to the Committee on Marine Resources regarding LD 908.Opponents of the Bill maintain that fisheries managers have a good handle on the fishery and have acted appropriately insofar as sustainability is concerned. For example, the number of fishers active in the fishery has nearly tripled in the past four years as those who maintained their license but didn’t fish it have chosen to become active again. In response, fisheries managers reduced the 2008 200-pound daily limit to 135 pounds or 15 gallons (10 gallons in Cobscook Bay). In addition, early closures and other management measures tailored to the zone have been utilized by DMR to insure ongoing sustainability.On the DMR Maine Scallop Fishery Management webpage, DMR state:
Since 2007, Maine fishermen & the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) have implemented a series of forward thinking management measures aimed at rebuilding the depleted scallop resource. The fishery has begun to realize the benefits of these measures, as recent reports indicate landings in 2013 alone were the highest in 13 years (424,547 meat pounds) while the value of the fishery was the highest in 15 years ($5,194,553)….DMR wishes to build upon this success towards the goal of providing industry with a resource base that is stable and predictable, thus providing for an environment in which fishing businesses can prosper. Over the past five years countless meetings were held to gather fishermen’s input on the overall rebuilding plan across the state.
The Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources will hold a public hearing on LD 908 tomorrow (Wednesday 1 April) at 1:00 pm in Room 206 of the Cross Building at the State Capital complex. Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, a member of the Committee, recently stated on his Facebook page regarding LD 908:
I know several of you may be coming up to the hearing. I would encourage all who can to do so, even though it is on a fishing day. It is vitally important that we hear from you, myself in particular, as I am going to really listen to what scallopers from Down East have to say above anything else. So chime in with your two cents, pass the word to other scallopers, and, to use a baseball analogy, don’t be afraid to call balls and strikes. That goes a long way with me.