Maine shelled out fewer prized scallops in 2018

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, file photo, scallop meat is shucked at sea off Harpswell, Maine. The state's scallop harvest declined by about a third in 2018, marking the first time in several years that the valuable fishery has taken a step back. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

ROCKPORT, Maine — Maine's scallop harvest declined by about a third in 2018, marking the first time in several years that the valuable fishery took a step back.

The state's scallop harvest is a drop in the bucket within the worldwide industry, but Maine scallops are prized because of their size and value. Maine scallops are also a conservation success story; the industry had declined to less than 34,000 pounds of meat in 2005 before conservative management brought the fishery back to good health.

But the harvest fell from more than 800,000 pounds in 2017 to less than 564,000 pounds in 2018, state data say. The value of the fishery also fell from more than $9.4 million to a little less than $6 million at the docks.

This year's dip might have been a product of the tight regulations that helped rebuild the fishery. The state uses a rotational closure system that blocks off parts of the coast to fishermen, and that meant some productive areas were left untouched last year so shellfish populations could rebuild, said Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

Keliher called the drop "not that surprising." Alex Todd, a scalloper on Casco Bay, agreed. The fishery, he said, could just as easily be poised for a rebound in 2019.

"This year was supposed to be the leaner year," Todd said. "We'll find out next year."

Fishermen harvest Maine scallops using dragger boats or by diving for them by hand in the state's icy waters. Scallops at large have been in high demand around the country in recent years, and the value of Maine's scallops has surged as a result. However, the 2018 value bumped back 10 percent to $10.54 per pound, the lowest figure since 2011.

Part of the cachet of Maine's scallops is that they're fished mostly by smaller boats near shore, and the fishermen are limited to small quantities of scallops per trip, which results in a fresh product of limited availability.

Togue Brawn, owner of Maine scallop dealer Downeast Dayboat, said the meat quality was also a touch off this year. However, the industry remains in a good place, she said.

"It's going to go up and down. Mother nature is fickle," she said.

The Maine scallop fishing season typically lasts from December to April. The state's most recent catch data are for calendar 2018, meaning they include the final three months of the 2017-18 season and the first month of the current season.

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