ROCKLAND — In a region where years of harsh, inflexible regulations have led to a dwindling fishing fleet and shrinking dockside revenues, the scallop fishery stands out as one of the few success stories, producing one of the most valuable and sought-after seafood products in the country.

But in order to stay viable in the face of harvest cuts expected to go into effect next year, the fishery needs more flexibility from fisheries managers. One way to do this is to restore access to historic scalloping grounds from which the industry has long been excluded.

Since the early 1990s, sections of Georges Bank off the coast of New England have been closed to scallopers and groundfishermen, part of an effort intended to limit overfishing and protect habitats. In the process, these closures cut off access to some of the best scallop grounds in the region.

Georges Bank, particularly a section known as the Northern Edge, has long been important to the scallop fishery. The area may be home to as much as 10 percent of the region’s scallops, and one closed section of the Northern Edge alone was recently estimated to contain around 20 million pounds of scallops.

In the 20 years that the Georges Bank closures have been in effect, serious questions have emerged over whether they have provided any benefit at all. The New England Fishery Management Council is finally set to re-evaluate, and possibly reverse, these closures. The council’s Omnibus Habitat Amendment, and several of the currently included proposals, would finally grant the scallop fleet access to much of the closed areas.

Opening these areas will have many immediate benefits. The scallop beds that are now off-limits could contain millions of dollars’ worth of harvestable scallops, and would help preserve badly needed waterfront jobs and fishing revenue for our struggling port communities.

Access would give the scallop fleet additional flexibility to harvest an abundant and sustainable resource. Access would allow for a more consistent supply of scallops to maintain the market that the fleet has built up and that has made scallops one of our nation’s most in-demand seafood products. Most importantly, access can prevent a series of ultimately unnecessary harvest cuts that are expected for the next fishing year’s scallop catch.

While these openings would undeniably benefit the scallop fishery, concerns have been raised over their potential environmental impact. The original rationale for the closures included, at least in part, the idea that they would preserve habitats that are important for juvenile groundfish species like cod and haddock. The thinking went that, if left undisturbed, the areas’ gravelly habitats would provide both food and refuge for smaller groundfish, and that these areas would help their populations rebuild.

But the record of these closed areas in providing such benefits has been ambiguous, at best. Since being implemented, there has been little follow-up research that has been able to quantify what benefits, if any, 20 years of area closures have provided.

The scallop fishery is nonetheless committed to maintaining a healthy environment, and fortunately, these areas can be opened in an environmentally sustainable way.

Any time scallop gear is used, there necessarily will be some unavoidable interaction between the gear and the seafloor. The best way to minimize these kinds of interactions is to make sure that the gear stays on the ocean bottom for as little time as possible, by allowing scallopers to work in areas with high scallop concentrations.

When the fishery is operating at maximum efficiency, fisheries managers can decrease trawl times without changing catch levels. Georges Bank, with some of the densest, most abundant scallop grounds in New England, is the ideal location to successfully deploy this strategy.

In fisheries management, the goals of environmental conservation and economic preservation often seem to conflict. But in this case, what is economically prudent also happens to be environmentally beneficial. Scallop fishermen support any effort by the New England Fishery Management Council to make these areas available to our industry in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.

— Special to the Press Herald