The first of March marked opening day for the 2017 federal scallop fishing season. Already the shells are flying. In 2016 the Gulf of Maine had the highest scallop landings in over 20 years, and those numbers are on track to increase again in 2017. When state and federal landings are combined, the Gulf of Maine produced almost one million pounds of scallops last year: this, from an area which yielded less than 100,000 pounds just eleven years ago. The increase in scallop productivity represents an extraordinary opportunity, especially considering the high market value of scallops. This is an opportunity that must fostered for continued growth.
Maine has developed a management plan that is proactive in protecting and building the scallop stock for the future. It accomplishes this by incorporating area-based management, using rotating closures, and paying close attention to landings within state waters. However, in federal waters (outside three miles), loopholes in management are on the brink of destroying the future of this fishery. Maine’s federal waters fishermen may lose the scallop fishery for another decade unless swift action can be taken to quickly stem the over-exploitation of a stock that is just starting to return to the Gulf of Maine.
Before we go on, a brief explanation of the management in the federal scallop fishery:
In April 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. The three categories of permits established were: Limited Access (LA), representing 95% of the allowable catch and managed through days-at-sea; General Category (GC), which was allocated 5 % of the catch and managed through allocation and trip limits; and Northern Gulf of Maine (NGOM), managed through a total allowable catch in the NGOM area with a 200lb trip limit.
LA and GC vessels were put into permit classes based on landings over a predetermined series of years. Unfortunately for Gulf of Maine fishermen, the years used to establish a baseline coincided with a time of very low scallop abundance. This meant that many permit holders north of Cape Cod had essentially no landings history, and Maine in particular was positioned to lose almost all access to the scallop fishery. The Department of Marine resources threw a ‘Hail Mary’ at the New England Fishery Management Council and successfully created this third permit class for the Northern Gulf of Maine. This new class was meant to ensure at least a minimal level of access for Maine’s boats.
In order to construct the NGOM fishing area, a line was drawn in the ocean just north of Cape Cod and to the east about 60 miles. NGOM-permitted boats were given a small fishery there. Many managers assumed 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, and now that this region’s 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 southernmost extent of the NGOM. LA boats immediately began harvesting scallops there within the inshore grounds. This meant that in 2016, a year when the allowable catch for the NGOM was set at 70,000lbs, 300,000lbs 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 which 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 this area does not apply to the large-boat LA fleet, meaning that large vessels can keep fishing until the TAC is caught by the small boats fishing in the area. Only then is the area shut down to all fishing effort.
In the six weeks that NGOM and GC boats took to catch 70,000lb 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 necessarily to blame: this activity is permitted by law. However, the lack of a comprehensive management plan for the NGOM has led to a derby fishery where each vessel is trying to catch as many scallops as possible as quickly as possible. The LA permits race to fill their boats, and the NGOM vessels race to shut the area down.
This problem was brought to the council last year, and nothing was done to address it.
This year, a new NGOM stock assessment suggests that the area can now yield over 400,000lbs of scallops. This marks an unanticipated and triumphant moment for this region's scallop fishery, and its return should have been an occasion for celebration. Instead, the assessment team struggled to determine how to set a TAC that could constrain LA boats while letting small boats reap the benefits of an enlarged stock. NGOM fishermen still feared that the same old management loopholes might yet end their hopes of a permanently rebuilt fishery. In order to soothe these fears, the total allowable catch was again set at just over 70,000lbs. Managers hoped that fishing effort would be similar to 2016: LA boat would catch 300,000lbs, but the small boats could get their 70k, and the Council would have more time to confront the issue.
What no one could have predicted was that effort from LA boats was about to increase dramatically. At the time of writing, based on preliminary figures, NOAA believes that over 1,000,000lbs of scallops are going to be taken out of this area before the small-boat TAC is reached and fishing can be halted. This will more than double what scientists recommended be caught in this rebuilding area.
This leaves small-boat Maine, New Hampshire, and Mass. fishermen in a state of limbo as they look to the future. The options available to quickly fix this problem are limited. The NEFMC has stated its intent to address this issue in the coming year, but some quick fix must be put in place to stop the bleeding and to protect whatever remains of the scallop stock to ensure this does not happen again next year. However, we must bear in mind that the system as it currently structured is destined to fail. User conflicts between permit types have become unavoidable since the biomass returned, and instead of putting a band-aid on this issue, the council must go through the process of fully protecting and planning for the long-term future of this fishery.
Photos by Collin Howell http://collinhowell.com/