For the past decade, scallopers have supplied the struggling fishing industry with something almost as rare as leftovers of the fried, grilled or bacon-wrapped delicacy: good news.
For nine straight years, the booming scallop catch has made New Bedford, Mass., the nation's highest-revenue fishing port. This summer, a survey of a key Northeast fishing area showed the strongest stocks of young scallops in nearly a decade.
So why, scalloper Dan Eilertsen asks, is he looking at 22 percent reduction in the number of days he can fish next year?
"The resource is just so incredibly strong," said Eilertsen, who owns four scallop boats. "It's just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, and it doesn't make any sense."
Rules passed by the New England Fishery Management Council last week reduced the number of fishing days from 37 this year to 29 in 2010. That's lowered the projected catch by about 11 million pounds, to 41.5 million.
In addition, the industry has lost another 18,000 pounds per boat because fishermen are forbidden to make trips into an area of the Georges Bank fishing grounds _ a jaunt formerly allowed. Regulators are worried the fleet could damage troubled yellowtail flounder stocks there this year.
The industry estimates the new rules will mean a loss of $300,000 per boat.
"I've got to figure out how I'm going to make it all happen on a lot less dollars," said Eilertsen, of Fairhaven. "Somebody's going to lose their job somewhere."
Chris Kellogg, deputy director of the New England Fishery Management Council, which devises local fishing rules, said regulators took a conservative approach for the coming fishing year, which begins in March, after the industry overshot its projected catch last year.
The cuts aim to keep scallops at a level scientists says will allow strong reproduction, even as fishermen catch tens of millions of pounds of the mollusks at about $6 to $10 per pound, depending on size.
The overall approach has a proven record of success, including more and bigger scallops, Kellogg said.
"It's a strategy that's worked since 1994," Kellogg said.
The impact on retail prices is unclear, although the cuts will probably affect scallopers' income more than scallop-eating consumers, since the supply remains abundant.
The local scallop industry was in major distress in the mid-1990s after regulators closed three key scallop areas to protect vulnerable groundfish, such as cod and flounder. When regulators reopened the areas to the scallop fleet in 1999, an abundance was waiting to be caught.
In 2000, New Bedford started its string of nine straight years as the top revenue port in the country, including last year, when it had a total catch worth $241.3 million.
The industry got good news in August when the Northeast Fisheries Science Center on Cape Cod released survey results that showed juvenile scallops on Georges Bank were at their highest level since 2000.
The cuts as the stock flourishes are even more baffling at a time when the jobs are badly needed, Eilertsen said. Scallops are a success story that should be a lot more successful, he said.
"Overall, I don't know that we're really managing anywhere near our full potential," he said.
The biggest danger is that the cuts, and the subsequent lower catch, could make a healthy market appear unstable and scare buyers into alternative markets, said Kevin Stokesbury, a leading scallop scientist at the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
"They're all looking for a steady stable supply, and this interrupts it and it's not really clear why it's interrupted it," he said.
Kellogg said an economic analysis by the council indicates the losses from this year will be regained quickly.
The cut in fishing will allow spaces for the abundant juvenile scallops to grow to a more premium size. Yellowtail flounder stocks appear to be strengthening, he said, which could mean the fleet's lost trip to the closed area of Georges Bank will quickly resume with bigger scallops to catch.
"Long term, they're going to do even better," Kellogg said.