Finding a new way: Maine’s scallopers discuss potential closed area management options

First published in the MLA Newsletter, August, 2011.

Carla Guenther is the fisheries science and leadership advisor at Penobscot East Resource Center. Photo courtesy of PERC.

During this past spring, I met with 65 scallop fishermen in a series of 28 meetings held across the state. Scallopers from Casco Bay to Cobscook Bay are participating in a deliberative process the aim of which is to agree on how to manage future opening of scallop closed areas. The areas were established by Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) in 2009 and are scheduled to sunset in 2012. Once some agreement has been achieved, participating fishermen plan to present their ideas to the Scallop Advisory Council (SAC) and the DMR.

The 28 meetings were an extension of Penobscot East’s Community Fisheries Action Roundtable (C-FAR) program. The program consists of a series of facilitated meetings designed to let fishermen bring their knowledge and creativity to sustainable fishery management solutions. The scallop C-FAR meetings were held in Portland, Rockland, Ellsworth, Steuben, Beals, Machias and Dennysville. In each area, I held four meetings, spread over four months, from March to June. Roughly 35% of the state’s active scallopers attended at least one meeting; the attendees ranged in age from 17 to 70. Participants had between five and 40+ years of fishing experience and accrued knowledge. Three SAC representatives regularly attended meetings near their homeports both to participate in discussions and hear their constituents’ thoughts.

Meetings included both small and whole-group discussions. At all meetings I worked with professional facilitator, Deb Burwell. We first asked fishermen to describe their past experiences with fishery management. Fishermen regularly said that, in the past, they felt as though they were participating too late in the decision making process:  by the time they were asked for input, decisions had already been made. Fishermen said that generally they only attend meetings to defend themselves or their access to a fishery. Fishermen also mentioned being hopeful that the C-FAR meetings could change this, by establishing a new confidence and culture of engaging in management discussions earlier.

In subsequent meetings participants identified what was most important to them about the scallop fishery. In all areas fishermen identified resource sustainability, tradition, and flexible winter economic opportunity as important aspects of the scallop fishery. They also prioritized issues they felt need to be addressed in response to opening scallop closed areas and the changes they have observed in the fleet and in the resource.

Scallopers’ priorities and issues expressed at the 28 meetings are almost surprisingly similar. One noticeable difference, however, is fishermen’s local perception of the effect of their local scallop closures. This difference may or may not be related to the closures’ local political history.

In 2008, DMR hosted planning meetings with scallopers in these same areas to identify locations for closure the next year. From the fishermen’s discussions at the meetings, it appears that different strategies were used among participating scallopers. Some fishermen offered to close formerly good scallop bottom hoping to let scallops resettle and grow during the three-year closure. Others opted to close scallop spawning areas in the hopes scallops there would seed neighboring fishing grounds in perpetuity. Still other fishermen did not buy in to the concept of closures for their area and thus might not have put much stake into “planning for success.” These differences occurred most noticeably between specific areas. There remains a fair amount of disagreement on strategies for opening closed areas as a result.

These differences may not be insurmountable. Curious about how their own thinking compared to that of scallopers in other areas, fishermen participating in the C-FAR meetings requested an opportunity to meet with fishermen from the whole coast. On July 11, a statewide meeting took place in Belfast where 19 scallopers met to discuss their individual area’s ideas and observations.

Some were surprised to learn how differently scallopers and scallops alike have responded to closures. To others it wasn’t such a surprise given the ecological and fleet differences across the state. DMR’s scallop survey of closed areas scheduled for this fall became ever more important as the sole source of monitoring data. All in attendance were interested in working with the DMR on this survey to enhance their own knowledge of closed area effects. Participants asked for a follow up meeting to develop a method to identify which aspects of closure management need to be decided as a whole and which can vary depending on the resource’s response to closure. They commented on how much they have learned from each other throughout the process and remained hopeful that they could come together on some management approaches by the fall, before DMR needs to draft rules for closure management next summer.

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