The niche northern Gulf of Maine scallop fleet brought its territory back from the brink and now hopes to keep it that way

New England’s small-boat scallopers are not just diving and dragging for their catch. They’re driving to change the way it’s managed.

“My biggest worry is that we just have a fishery to work on,” says Kristan Porter, 46, a scallop fisherman and advisory panel member from Cutler, Maine.

In Maine, the state scallop season opens in the early winter, on or around Dec. 1, and typically stays open through March. Just outside the three-mile line is the federal northern Gulf of Maine scallop fishery, which is managed by the New England Fishery Management Council and extends about halfway down the coast of Massachusetts. The territory is vast, but the productive areas are small compared to the prolific array of scallop grounds to the south.

Scallop stocks in the northern Gulf of Maine are rebounding. Alex Todd photo.

Scallop stocks in the northern Gulf of Maine are rebounding. Alex Todd photo.

“If we manage our fishery correctly here [in Maine state lines], then those scallops will work their way outside the 3-mile line,” says Porter, who drags for scallops on the 40-foot Brandon Jay.

The sector was established when the New England Fishery Management Council adopted Amendment 11 to the Atlantic sea scallop fishery management plan, effective June 1, 2008, initially creating two federal permits — IFQs and limited access days at sea.

“We had a bunch of people from Maine who didn’t qualify at all. So they created this northern Gulf of Maine permit,” says Mary Beth Tooley, at an at-large member of the council and the chairwoman of the sea scallop committee.

In New England, the IFQ and days at sea (limited access) fleets historically fished Georges Bank and down to the Mid-Atlantic on scallop grounds that had been rebounding since 2004, with more areas being opened thanks to video mapping that showed they were burgeoning with biomass and healthy enough for a directed fishery. Since then, the New Bedford fleet’s lucrative landings have kept their home port at the top of the list of the nation’s ports by value.

At the time of the Amendment 11 adoption, the northern Gulf of Maine territory was not worth much. But those few fishermen with history in the area believed they might be able to bring it back with good stewardship. They asked for and were granted a low hard TAC of 70,000 pounds (compared with a fleetwide limit of about 40 million pounds) with a limit of 200 pounds a day and a 10-1/2-foot dredge.

“The people who have traditionally fished there, they want it to stay carefully managed,” says Janice Plante, public affairs officer for the New England council.

Those who carry only a northern Gulf of Maine federal permit are allowed to fish only in that area. However, the other two federal permits — IFQ and limited access — are also permitted to fish in the northern gulf, should they be so inclined. The IFQ permit holders must adhere to the northern Gulf of Maine daily limit of 200 pounds of shucked scallops and dredge size. Their catch also counts toward the area’s hard TAC of 70,000 pounds.

The crew of Alex Todd’s Jacob and Joshua shucks and sorts sea scallops, the unsung prized jewel of Maine waters. Alex Todd photo.

The crew of Alex Todd’s Jacob and Joshua shucks and sorts sea scallops, the unsung prized jewel of Maine waters. Alex Todd photo.

But the real catch is a lack of language that would have applied restrictions to the limited access boats fishing in the northern Gulf of Maine. These boats, which are typically about twice the size (averaging 79 feet) of the northern Gulf of Maine boats, are allowed to carry combined dredges no wider than a total of 31.5 feet and as many scallops as they can haul. And since the limited access boats are not required to report poundage toward a daily limit, their take also does not count toward the TAC.

“We’re limited to this low, low TAC, and yet their numbers don’t really count,” says Alex Todd, 47, a 10th-generation fisherman from Chebeague Island, Maine.

Some call it a loophole, but Tooley calls that a misnomer.

“The council made the decision knowing that the limited access boats could access the northern Gulf of Maine,” she says. “No activity was occurring, and there was no reason to think there would be activity in the next few years,” Tooley adds.

There was little reason to think the big boats would head north to set gear in the northern gulf. Why would the limited access boats want to steam north to fish a tiny corner of the ocean when they have prolific and productive grounds in their backyard?

“A day at sea has so much value. They only have 34 days,” Tooley says.

Togue Brawn of Downeast Dayboat. Roman Jòzefiak photo.

Togue Brawn of Downeast Dayboat. Roman Jòzefiak photo.

Togue Brawn, who owns and manages Downeast Dayboat, a Maine-based scallop processor that deals directly with local fishermen, also volunteers as an advocate for the fishery.

“I’ve been going to the council for eight years asking them to close this loophole,” Brawn says. “We’ve got very good measures in place to prevent overfishing from the small boats [in this area], but we don’t have measures in place to prevent overfishing from the big boats.”

She says she was pushing for the council to be proactive rather than reactive.

“She made the list of priorities, but she didn’t make the cut,” Tooley says. “There didn’t seem to be a reason to address it then.”

The wheels turn slowly in the federal management process, which means the council’s plate is always full. They focus on the top priorities, Tooley adds.

“This process is so dreadfully slow,” Porter says. “But on the water it’s not dreadfully slow. Damage can be done really quick.”

Now stakeholders are assessing the effects.

Last year, the federal scallop areas in southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic were less productive than the booms of recent years. The predicted down cycle is expected to end in the next year or two.

“We have had our annual catch limits lower in recent years,” Tooley says. “The biomass has been high, but a large part of the biomass has been small. We need to let them grow out.”

The crew of the Jacob and Joshua brings in part of their 200-pound daily limit. Alex Todd photo.

The crew of the Jacob and Joshua brings in part of their 200-pound daily limit. Alex Todd photo.

Because those areas are predicted to come into a boom stock for 2017-18, the northern Gulf of Maine scallopers predict that their grounds will be far less desirable to the bigger limited access boats come the 2018 season.

But without restrictions in place, the northern gulf permit holders fear their little spot in the ocean is once again at risk of depletion, so much so that its small-boat fleet petitioned the council to severely reduce the TAC for this year, even though the data justified an increase.

“We could have something here,” Porter says. “And we’re worried that we’re not gonna have any when it’s done.”

In the northern gulf, the average annual landings from 2009-12 were about 7,000 pounds. Then the price of scallops started to rise, and the landings shot up to 55,000 in 2013, 62,000 in 2014, and nearly 74,000 pounds in 2015. But 2016 was unprecedented. For the first time since the 2008 plan was implemented, the larger limited access boats were targeting the northern gulf.

“I took a few videos,” Todd says, describing what he saw in the northern gulf’s 2016 season. “It was just a bunch of 85- to 110-foot boats, so it’s hard to imagine what they were scraping in around the clock.”

The best guess at their landings (based on VMS pings and days at sea logged) was just shy of 300,000 pounds. The 25 northern Gulf of Maine permit-holders took about 62,000 pounds by comparison. The IFQ boats took about another 25,000 for a small-boat total of about 87,000 pounds.

“Last year the big boats took four times as much as the smaller boats,” Brawn says.”

Last year was also the first time the northern gulf sector wasn’t open for the entire fiscal year. It closed in 74 days.

“The entire time I was down there, there was a fleet of big boats,” says Todd.

And those big boats can hold a lot of scallops. The limited access boats start and end their day by crossing a demarcation line. Because they are not restricted by daily poundage limits, some of the crews were deckloading scallops and crossing back over the line to shuck.

“The open area is so close to the demarcation line,” Porter says, “they’d fish a deckload, then go back in so they were only burning one day,” he adds.

A new provision prohibiting deckloading for 2017 should limit the appeal of the northern gulf. It’s also likely the area will see new management measures in the next year.

Brawn got her eight-year wish when northern Gulf of Maine management system was listed as a priority for the New England council in 2017.

“We need to create an opportunity to have a conversation, for everyone to put their ideas on the table and to address the concerns in the northern Gulf of Maine,” Tooley says. “There’s a bunch of ideas. Do those ideas flesh out to be something that requires an amendment process or does it flesh out to be something that requires a framework?”

Crew members shuck scallops aboard the Jacob and Joshua. Alex Todd photo.

Crew members shuck scallops aboard the Jacob and Joshua. Alex Todd photo.

Despite the potential controversy and infighting, some northern Gulf of Maine permit holders understand what their fellow fishermen are going through with reduced catch limits and why they’re looking for a place to fish and pay the bills.

“I hate seeing fishermen cut out of anywhere,” says Todd. “I’ve been cut out of a bunch of stuff, and it sucks to be on the wrong side of the line. But I’m cut out of going into their zone.

“I’d like to see them have a low daily catch limit,” Todd adds. “Two-hundred makes it not fishable for a 90-foot boat. If the TAC is going to be ridiculously low like it is, then it should be 200 pounds. If the TAC gets up to 400,000 pounds, then that limit could go up.”

Porter agrees restrictions should be balanced. “For too big a boat, it’s not worth 200 pounds,” he says. “I’m a 40-foot boat with a 7-foot dredge, and I get my 200 pounds in a few hours.

“I don’t want to take anything away from them,” Porter adds. “But it’s too bad to destroy a fishery. And that poundage means a whole lot more to us than it means to them. But the reality is that they’re driving the bus.

“The Fisheries Survival Fund is very organized,” he says, referring to the advocacy group that represents most of the East Coast scallop fleet. “They know the game, they know the players, they know the system. We don’t have the horsepower to hire consultants.”

They may not have horsepower, but they’re certainly benefitting from the scallop’s market power. With dock prices in the mid- to high teens, no one is bound to complain too much as long as they have a season.
“When everyone’s getting a decent price, it’s a good time to have a conversation,” Tooley says.

Despite the competition, the future looks bright for the northern gulf fleet.

“Overall I’m optimistic about it all. It’s a nice fill-in,” says Todd. “I used to go shrimping until they cut that back.”

Maine fishermen are used to piecing together fisheries for year-round income, and they don’t give up easily.

“The guys have stuck it out and run their VMS for nothing, for years; submitted their log books for nothing for years,” Porter says. “There’s finally a nice set of scallops in this small area.

“I just want to assure that whatever is done that what has started for recovery of scallops in the Gulf of Maine keeps going,” he says, “that it’s not wiped out.”

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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