Scallop fishermen are fighting to reopen portions of Georges Bank long closed to scalloping, hoping to counteract a severe cutback in the number of days they may spend at sea next year.
At stake, scallopers say, is the survival of New England’s small and independent fishermen.
On March 1, the beginning of the 1999 fishing year, the number of days scallopers may spend at sea was cut to 120, down from 142 in 1998. The cut came in accordance with the sea scallop management plan of the New England Fishery Management Council – the federal body that governs scallop management in federal waters. The reduction is part of an attempt to restore depleted stocks.
What concerns scallopers, however, is that the management plan calls for the days at sea limit to be sliced even further next year, from 122 in 1999 to just 53 in 2000. The cut will go into effect unless the council alters the plan this year.
It’s the kind of cut that will put people out of business, said James Kendall, a Massachusetts representative to the council, a 17-member body which has representatives from Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island besides Massachusetts.
Kendall, who scalloped Georges Bank for 32 years before becoming executive director of the New Bedford (Mass.) Seafood Coalition, said such a reduction could drive many boats from the water, even if the council decides to make the closed areas accessible again.
”That’s untenable,” he said of the 53-day limit. “I’m afraid that pretty much all of the people I lived and grew up with (in this industry) are going to be gone.”
Nonetheless, scallopers like Kendall believe opening closed sections of the bank would be a positive step. The closures first occurred in 1994 when the U.S. secretary of commerce ordered the council to take action to save rapidly declining stocks of ground fish, such as cod and haddock.
The council then closed off three areas of Georges Bank to all fishing gear capable of catching ground fish. Area I, a 1,000 square-mile box off Cape Cod; Area II, a 2,600 square-mile area that touches the line separating U.S. and Canadian waters; and Area III, the 2,500 square-mile Nantucket Lightship area.
Since then, however, all of the closed areas have recovered to some extent, which has prompted scallop fishers over the past year to push the council to reopen parts of the bank. Last summer, a federal research survey showed that scallops are more abundant in the closed areas than in the adjacent open areas.
The council is expected to vote next month on whether to open a portion in the southern section of Area II. If it votes in favor, its decision will be forwarded to U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley, who will approve it if it meets federal regulations and policies.
It is even possible, council members said, that part of Area II could be reopened by early July.
But no one guarantees that. Much work remains before the April meeting.
The principal concern is whether it is possible to open the area to scalloping without damaging the habitats and ground fish.
Area II, for instance, is a prime habitat for yellowtail and other types of flounder, now under rebuilding programs.
Said Philip Haring, a fishery analyst for the council: “There is a lot of concern about the potential impacts. We still have to figure out how to balance the taking of the scallops with the bi-catch of ground fish species, particularly flounder.”
That is a job for the scallop committee, of which Kendall is a part, and the council Plan Development Team. The committees will issue a recommendation on the best way to manage the harvest.
Over the years the bank has been stripped of much of its habitats – so much so that many scallop fishers are forced to travel to mid-Atlantic waters to harvest, said Teri Frady, chief of research communications for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.
”The open part of Georges Bank is still pretty well depleted,” Frady said.
The roots of the depletion date back to the 1970s, when regulations on trawling and dredging were insufficient, said Jeremy S. Collie, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s graduate school of oceanography. A late ’70s attempt to regulate the industry with quotas failed. Meanwhile, a modest recovery in stocks was seen as a sign that the habitats were safe, he said.
”There was sort of a denial of over-fishing,” he said, “or an ignoring of the fact that the supply of young fish depends on the supply of old fish – people were not willing to make the connection that you needed to have parents to have babies.”
While the closures have hurt fishermen, they have given scientists the chance to study habitats when they are undisturbed – a tremendous opportunity, given that little is known about many of the hundreds of species of plant and fish life that live there.
By studying these areas, scientists will better understand the habitat and the extent in which it can recover. Collie will take more samples of these closed areas this summer.
How well habitats recover will ultimately determine when the council can open the closed areas again. Right now, it is trying to start by opening part of Area II.