With just a couple weeks of April left, if you like Maine scallops, you had better take the opportunity to get them while you can. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting for the fishery to re-open in December. Unlike many other types of Maine seafood, scallops are only available seasonally. It’s a little confusing, though, because there are two different seasons. That’s because there are two parts of the fishery, one closer to shore and one further offshore. Scallops are a highly valuable species, so managing them well provides substantial income for the state’s economy

The state fishery, which opens in December, takes place inshore of the three-mile state water limit. It is managed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). They issue licenses by lottery for two types of license – one for dragging, the primary means of harvesting, and one for divers who collect scallops by SCUBA. The season is slightly different for each type. The inshore fishery is divided into zones that are closed when harvesting limits are reached.

The federal fishery, which takes place out past three miles from shore, is managed by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC). That fishery requires a separate license and each permit is specific to a designated area. We are part of the Northern Gulf of Maine (NGOM) area. The state scallop season is often the one people think of and associate with Maine fishermen, but around 40 Maine boats fish in the NGOM.

That hasn’t always been the case, though, as the fishery in federal waters was restricted for many years due to overfishing. Several conservation measures were put into place and, bit by bit, there were signs of recovery. As this happened, the fishery began to reopen. Restrictions like limits on total catch and also on bycatch species were put in place as well as closures of certain areas on a rotational basis. Areas further south recovered and were reopened earlier.

When more scallops started showing up in the Northern Gulf of Maine, fishermen and scientists were interested in how to access this area again. Because the federal fishery is restricted to a total amount for the season, once that amount is caught, the season is over. That typically ends up being 4-6 weeks. That can be tough for some of Maine’s boats that are smaller and can’t always compete with the larger southern fleet. But, in October 2020, the NEFMC voted to allocate a substantial part of the catch to NGOM fishermen. That was a welcome win for fishermen during a particularly tough fishing year, and now many of them are out there fishing as a result.

One of the neat things happening on these Maine boats to ensure the continued recovery of the scallop resource, is the proactive collection of data. These boats aren’t required to have observers on board, as those in other areas are, so this is a voluntary effort. Several science and fishing organizations including the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA) have been working together to put cameras on scallop boats so that they can learn more about what is out there.

The cameras are a part of electronic monitoring systems that collect everything from identifying and quantifying bycatch to measuring the size range of the scallops that come on board and also looking at other species that come up like sand dollars and starfish, which are ecological indicators. The idea is not only to collect data to make management of the fishery better, but also to get out ahead of the game. The NEFMC is developing a monitoring plan for NGOM and electronic monitoring will hopefully be a part of that now that it has already been road-tested.

Equipped with their hi-tech gear, several of Maine’s boats will be out there gathering scallops for a little while longer, taking advantage of a rare opportunity both for the fishermen this year as well as for the consumer.

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