guest column: Small boat scallopers now in a state of limbo

First published in Landings, May, 2017

The first of March marked the opening of the 2017 federal scallop fishing season and already the shells are flying. 2016 had the best scallop landings in over 20 years in the Gulf of Maine. If you combine state and federal landings, almost a million pounds came out of an area that only 11 years ago, produced less than 100,000 pounds. This is an extraordinary turn around considering the value of scallops, something that Maine must embrace, steward, and protect.

Ben Martens is the executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. MCFA photo.

Instead of fostering growth, loopholes in federal management are on the brink of undercutting any future this fishery has for Mainers. The state of Maine has a management plan that is proactive in protecting and growing the scallop stock for the future by incorporating area-based management, rotating closures, and paying close attention to the landings within state waters. The federal waters fishery is another story. That fishery is in jeopardy of being lost to Maine’s fishermen for another decade unless something can be done to quickly stem the over-exploitation of a stock that is just starting to return to our federal waters.

Management of the federal scallop fishery is complex. In April of 2008, NOAA Fisheries published the Final Rule for Amendment 11 to the federal scallop fishery management plan. This plan established three categories of permits for the federal scallop fishery and set the standard for scallop management throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions. The three categories of permits established are: Limited Access (LA) representing 95% of the allowable catch and managed through days-at-sea; General Category (GC) which has a 5% allocation of the catch and is managed through allocation and trip limits; and the Northern Gulf of Maine (NGOM) which is managed through a total allowable catch in the NGOM area with a 200 pound trip limit.

LA and GC boats were put into a permit class based upon an individual’s landings over a series of years. Unfortunately for Gulf of Maine fishermen, the years picked to establish the baseline were at a time of very low abundance of scallops in the Gulf. The result is that there were no landings for many Maine permit holders and Maine was in the position to lose almost all access to the federal scallop fishery. The Department of Marine Resources threw a ‘Hail Mary’ at the New England Fishery Management Council and was successful in creating this third permit class for the Northern Gulf of Maine. This new class was to ensure at least a minimal level of access for Maine’s boats.

A line was drawn in the ocean, just north of Cape Cod and to the east about 60 miles, and the NGOM permitted boats were given a small fishery. It was the assumption of many that there was not much to catch in this area and that there wouldn’t be for the foreseeable future. As is typical, much of the focus in Amendment 11 was on the more profitable components of the fishery. The NGOM was an afterthought. But now that the fishery is returning, the management plan is being stressed to the point of breaking.

The cracks started to appear last year when a large bed of scallops was found off Stellwagon Bank in the southern-most extent of the NGOM and LA boats began harvesting within the inshore grounds. The result was that in 2016, a year when the allowable catch for the NGOM was set at 70,000 pounds, 300,000 pounds were plucked from this area.

How did this happen? Well, despite the NGOM being established as its own area, with a discrete stock assessment, boats with LA permits are allowed in the NGOM area under their own, separate, management plan. This occurs even though the stock assessment process that determines the number of days available to fish for the LA boats ignores these fishing grounds to focus on the more heavily populated Georges Bank. The allowable catch for the NGOM doesn’t apply to the LA fleet. But, because of how the regulations are written, the entire area is still shut down when the TAC is caught by the small boats fishing in the area. In the six weeks it took NGOM and GC boats to catch 70,000 pounds in 2016, the LA boats raced to catch as many pounds as they could before moving on to other fishing grounds. The LA boats are not to blame, they are fishermen and legally allowed to do this. But the lack of a comprehensive management plan for the NGOM has led to a derby fishery where everyone is trying to catch as many scallops as quickly as possible. This issue was brought to the New England Fisheries Management Council last year and nothing was done to address the problem.

This year, a new stock assessment was completed which suggested over 400,000 pounds could safely be taken out of the NGOM. The return of a fishery to an area that had lost scallops decades ago should have been celebrated. Instead, the assessment team struggled to determine how to set a TAC that would also constrain the LA boats. NGOM fishermen also feared that the management loopholes would lead to a quick end to the rebuilding of this fishery so the allowable catch was again set at a little over 70,000 pounds. The hope was that effort would be similar to last year, small boats would hit their marks, LA boat would catch 300,000 pounds, and the Council would have time to better address the issue.

What no one could have known at the time though, was that the effort from LA boats was poised to increase dramatically, far more than it was ever expected. Based upon preliminary data, NOAA believes that over 1 million pounds of scallops are going to be taken out of this area before the TAC is hit. This is more than double the amount scientists recommended be caught in this rebuilding area.

This leaves Maine’s small boat fleet and New Hampshire and Massachusetts fishermen in a state of limbo. The NEFMC has stated its intent to address this issue over the next year but the options available are limited. A quick fix must be put in place to stop the bleeding and protect whatever remains of the stock to ensure this does not happen again next year. We must also recognize that the system as it is currently constituted is destined to fail. User conflict between permit types was unavoidable once the biomass returned, and instead of putting a band-aid on this issue, we need a council process to fully address, protect, and plan for the long-term future of this fishery.