Cape scallop fishermen cash in on grounds closer to home
Mark Costa, the cook on the fishing boat Aidan's Pride that was tied up at Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich on Thursday, helps prepare the boat to head back out to sea. Federal regulators recently opened up an area to scalloping about 70 miles southeast of Saquatucket, making life easier on small Cape-based boats. Photo Credit: Steve Haines/Cape Cod Times
By Doug Fraser
HARWICH PORT — The scalloping was pretty poor north of Provincetown last month for the crew of Aidan’s Pride; they towed their dredge for hours just to get a hundred pounds.
So the Wellfleet scallop vessel, owned by Aidan Lapierre and captained by Sean Gray, was heading south to Maryland about three weeks ago, hoping for a more bountiful harvest, when it broke an outrigger in rough water transiting the Cape Cod Canal.
It turned out to be a fortunate break, as the delay lasted just long enough that they were still around when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries office in Gloucester approved a plan May 3 to open a scallop-rich spot around 70 miles southeast of Saquatucket Harbor where Aidan's Pride was tied up Thursday.
Catches in near-shore areas petered out over the past few years for members of what is known as the general category scallop fleet, smaller vessels around 40 feet in length that are only allowed to land 600 pounds of scallop meats a day. They were not able to harvest their allotted quota and petitioned NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council to open a portion of the so-called Nantucket Lightship closed area exclusively to them because their vessels are not suited to the long trip to prime scalloping grounds on Georges Bank. In addition, the profits from the relatively small amount of scallops they were allowed to catch would quickly be eaten up by fuel costs.
Their only alternative: head south to the Mid-Atlantic.
But a window of opportunity opened after scientific surveys of the Nantucket Lightship area showed there weren't enough mature scallops available to open it this year. Members of what is known as the limited access fleet — vessels 80 to more than 100 feet long which harvest as much as 17,000 pounds a day and are responsible for 95 percent of the scallop catch — wanted it kept closed to everyone.
This was in part due to surveys that showed only 400 metric tons could be safely harvested in the area, which meant only 52 trips, or 16.6 percent of the 345 vessels in the limited access fleet making a single trip before the quota closed.
That amount was ultimately trimmed to 132 metric tons or nearly 300,000 pounds when the counsel granted access to the general category fleet of 217 vessels. But the general category fleet argued that the nearly 482 trips their boats could make to get just 600 pounds of meat would be important for their financial viability.
“We saw an opportunity that was close to home, and we had really spotty fishing at home,” said John Pappalardo, New England Fishery Council member and chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which advocated for the opening on behalf of 18 Cape Cod vessels.
The vessels making the trips into the area were committed to high levels of observer coverage on their boats, as well as high accountability for what they are catching and throwing back, Pappalardo said. They are working on programs to help captains avoid areas with high levels of small and seed scallops and where fish like flounder are present, because the area has been closed to catching groundfish since 1994, he said.
But the big scallop vessels remain skeptical.
“We chose not to go in there because the science said it wasn’t ready,” said Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney representing the Fisheries Survival Fund, which has many of the limited access fleet as members.
“We wanted the scallops to be larger, to get the maximum yield,” he said.
Since 2001, scallops have been managed under a rotational scheme much like letting a field lie fallow. Sampling is done to determine whether an area has enough large scallops to be opened to fishing. Areas with a lot of seed or immature scallops remain closed until they grow large enough for harvest.
It’s an approach that works but allowing someone into an area before it's ready violates that management principle, Minkiewicz said. Scallopers faced with only being able to land 600 pounds would likely sort through the catch, discarding smaller animals in favor of the large ones that fetched higher prices, he said.
“They’re human,” he said. “We don’t blame them for it, but they will kill a lot more scallops than 300,000 pounds.”
Kevin Stokesbury, principal investigator at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s sea scallop research program, is also opposed to letting general category boats into the Lightship area, saying the dredge would likely kill a lot of small scallops. Surveys and studies by UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology showed a small amount of growth actually doubled the amount of meat available. He agreed with Minkiewicz's argument that killing off large numbers of young scallops, even if limited by a relatively small quota, could significantly affect future harvests in the area.
“While 300,000 pounds of harvest is not a lot compared to the biomass there, how many small scallops will you have to sort through to get to the few large ones?” he said.
Paul Parker, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, felt this was an opportunity to get at some of the fishery’s vexing issues, like high grading to get large scallops and fish bycatch. Research using observers on board the general category vessels and SMAST scientists had already shown that the catch was made up mostly of larger scallops, he said.
“This area is much better than the Mid-Atlantic, where it was a real problem,” he said.
In December, the New England Fishery Management Council unanimously approved the request, and NOAA recently signed off. The agency rebutted many of the claims put forth by the Survival Fund and others in answers provided in the Federal Register announcement of the decision. Smaller scallops should slip through the larger ring holes used for that purpose in dredges, NOAA claimed. The agency argued the quota granted to general category scallopers was very small compared with the total amount of scallops in the area. While Survival Fund attorneys said the public process at the fishery council level was flawed and that the impact of allowing the small boat fleet in hadn’t been properly analyzed, NOAA cited meetings at all levels where access was discussed and analysis that had been completed.
The eight-hour cruise to the Nantucket Lightship closed area was well worth it, according to Aidan's Pride crew members who didn't have to leave their families for weeks at a time to fish farther south.
They were reaching their 600-pound daily limit of scallop meats in three tows, said crewman Mark Costa as he worked on the boat at Saquatucket Harbor this week.
“We were filling up the dredge in 10 minutes,” he said.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter: @dougfrasercct.