Scallops-R-US: Some initial thoughts and observations about the Maine scallop fishery

“… think we’re all on the same page even though we all disagree.” ~ Quote from a Scallop Advisory Council meeting

Author: Skylar Bayer

Lately, I’ve been having nightmares. Not the kind of nightmares where you’re naked in school taking an exam or being chased by a blood-sucking monster that turns out to be your thesis. No, I have nightmares about sea tables filled with scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) sperm and buckets upon buckets of orange scallop eggs. Unfortunately, these nightmares are not far off from my daytime reality — I find myself regularly cursing at scallop sea tables to either calm the Hell down or start spawning now, now, now!  If I were a smoker, scallops would have me burning through at least a pack a day. There are times in the summer that I day dream of those dreary winter days when snow is falling outside the building and I’m just writing papers and analyzing data. It sounds lame, but right now working on MATLAB code in a little coffee shop sounds pretty cozy to me.  Why on earth did I choose to work with an unreliable spawner like the giant sea scallop?

In my mind, context shapes everything. It’s why as much as I like a good ole math-induced intellectual orgasm, I can see why calculus wasn’t invented until it was needed.  In science, the social and economic context of your work can be, if not more important than, the scientific setting of your question. I chose this species not only for the scientific intrigue of reproduction problems, but for the opportunity to understand a little bit about the fishery that depends on the uniting of egg and sperm of these dirty little beasts in the summer waters of the Maine coastline.

Female scallop (orange-pink gonad in front center). Photo by Alice Anderson.

I sat through a 4 hour Scallop Advisory Council (SAC) meeting a few weeks ago. Prior to the meeting I’d spent the morning cutting out scallop gonads (which are arguably bigger than our own) before driving home to Rockport to drop off my dog, then to Belfast where I met my advisor to drive the rest of the way to Ellsworth city hall (~ 2 hours of driving). Why am I going to these 3-5 hour long meetings to listen to fishermen, a handful of scientists and policy makers from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) argue about what may seem like the same problems over and over again? I even had a fisherman ask me once, “…you’re not working on policy, why’re you coming to these meetings, anyway?”

I felt sort of cliché saying that I think it matters, that it matters a lot, even if I’m not getting a degree in Marine Policy. As I write this I’m sitting in my Maine moose caboose boxers with a naked, mythical (thank you, U.S. government) mermaid on my t-shirt, eating out of a 1.5 quart ice cream carton while placing frozen Reeses’ pieces on each spoonful of freezer burned Friendly’s French vanilla. I am not the poster child of the responsible, mature and socially sophisticated.  But for me, asking research questions that are directly applicable to local economic and conservation issues is important because I consider it socially responsible. It matters because the research I’m working on may very well impact the decisions made in the industry that will then impact the jobs of fishermen, government officials and anyone else in the scallop trade. If the research I’m working on does not affect any of these people; I have to ask myself why am I not working on a more applicable question? If I can’t explain why my science is important to a non-scientist, what’s the point?

I have been to at least 5 SAC meetings since October 2011. They are eye opening for me, a person who you should know the following facts about:

1)   I grew up in the upper middle class neighborhood of a suburban W-town outside Boston, Massachusetts. I am not a Mainer and I will never pretend I grew up here, it would be a disservice to those who did.

2)   I did not grow up knowing my knots, fishing or spending tons and tons of time on boats. I like boats, I’m trying to get better at driving them, but I do not have diesel fuel and varnish in my veins. I’m working on that.

3)   I am an academic. I read a lot and despite my own fistful of first hand experiences with sea creatures, I still find the people who constantly work with them absolutely awesome and true professionals of the sea.

For better or worse, the combination of my upbringing and academic background has created within me a sense of desired obligation in attending these meetings. Listening to all the disagreements, history of the industry, first hand accounts and relationships of these fishermen and policymakers provides a very complicated and vibrant canvas that my experiments of orange (eggs) and white specs (sperm) blend against.

This year is particularly important in regards to rule-making because it is the official end of a 3 year closure period of 10 areas along the Maine coastline. The closures were set in a response for an outcry to do something about the dwindling catch numbers in the Maine scallop fishery. These areas were decided locally, but approved by the state government (in other words, fishermen put their two cents in, but the final decision lay within the state government). Whether or not this was the most effective method of preserving the fishery remains to be seen, but it was done, so now decisions must be made about what rules to put in place regarding the closures. The remainder of the state scallop grounds has been available for scalloping, and as a result of these closures, has been mowed down harder than seasons prior to the closures. When these areas open up, there’s worry that they’re going to get mowed down just as much as the rest of the open fishing grounds.

One of the biggest complaints from everyone to the DMR at these meetings is the trawl data – There are a lot of places that the trawl doesn’t cover and there are potentially a lot of sweet spots of scallops (especially in large areas) that didn’t get hit on these trawl surveys. Some of the areas are really quite large and attempting to extrapolate a few trawls across a large area that may or may not have harvestable scallops seems to produce an unreliable number. During these trawl surveys, lobstering is a bit of an issue – these surveys can’t be conducted in areas high in lobster pots. So effectively, one industry is preventing data collection for another. This isn’t necessarily a surprise, but it is frustrating when you’re trying to get accurate population estimates.

Aside from trawl data, there are a lot of different things to consider when coming up with a way to approach re-opening closed areas (and dealing with the people who are going to fish them). At the moment, there are several proposals on the table. One idea that’s been catching on quickly is implementing rotational closures. The idea is that some of the closed areas would stay closed for up to two years while one area remained open, then a subset of the others would open up, and those that were open would then be closed for several years. Other suggestions depend on the number of days that the fishermen can go fishing, the total amount they can catch per day, which days of the week they can go and what’s the total allowable catch (TAC) for the area to insure that there’s “enough” scallops to produce more product in future years. Plus, there’s the consideration of marine patrol reinforcement, last minute license purchases, recreational fishermen, and poachers. One suggestion made has been to shut down the fishery for a year or so to let it recover. But shutting down a fishery for even a year is the kiss of death for those that live from selling the animal. Restaurants and buyers will start getting their scallops from places like Japan (where aquaculture of scallops is doing quite well) and the local fishery may never be restored. No one wants to see that happen.

Let’s back up a little bit to the geography of Maine. Maine’s coast is not (relatively) straight like that of California or Oregon. Its coastal land is chopped up into thousands of islands and several very long and isolating peninsulas. These peninsulas and islands constitute not only geographically distinct areas, but socially distinct areas, too. The largest divide in fishing regions that I can discern is between Down East Maine and everything West/South of Penobscot Bay. If you were to look at a map, you might be confused about the naming of these regions, but it is what it is. Within each major region there are even smaller fishing areas that are usually rivers or bays, divided by peninsulas and oceanography. There’s the Penobscot Bay area, the Casco Bay area, the Cobscook Bay area, the Damariscotta River area and so on (you get the idea).

The people of these different fishing regions selected their closure sites based on what that group of fishermen thought would be in their best interests for them and the fishery. Their input is based on what they’ve seen in terms of catch numbers and practices over the years and their goals for the closures. These goals may not necessarily match up with folks of other regions. Adding complication to these differing physical/cultural regions, there are different kinds of fishermen everywhere. There are those that have kids in college that need to help pay tuition this year. There are ones without (and sometimes with) kids that want to make the most money possible this year and probably will move onto another fishery if this one collapses. There are those that want to see their kids fish in the future and keep this aspect of coastal Maine culture and economy going, partly in an effort to prevent complete gentrification of the Maine coastline with out-of-staters. Then there are those that want to keep the fishery alive longer than just another year, period. There are other ‘categories’ of wants and desires, I suppose, and none of these are necessarily mutually exclusive, but after listening awhile, I’ve started to understand a little bit about why not everyone agrees on what to do exactly.

The Author hauling up a fish tote of scallops with fisherman Andy to right in drysuit and ball cap. Photo by Alice Anderson.

What I’ve come away with during my short time up here in Maine is this — this policy and fishery stuff is complicated. I can’t help but sit back during these meetings and admire the fact that anything gets done. Fisheries management is about managing people, not fish. I recall what one scientist told me in his office this past winter, “science is easy, policy is a bitch.” I admire all the people that actually show up to these meetings, and as my mother always says, half of life is about showing up. I pat myself on the back for actually showing up, showing my face, my fishy, dirty hands and ridiculously matted hair from dissecting scallops all morning. Maybe I’m not so far removed from the people I admire after all. I hope that I can help some of them as much as they’ve helped inspire me.

4 thoughts on “Scallops-R-US: Some initial thoughts and observations about the Maine scallop fishery

  1. Wonderfully-written and an excellent description of the conmplex interaction of science and policy in fisheries management!

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