Maine scallop fishermen expect to get record prices for their catch this season with strong global demand and a diminished supply from Japan and other competing, scallop-producing nations.
The weak U.S. dollar also is helping boost prices, said Dana Temple, who owns Crescent Bay Inc. seafood company in Cape Elizabeth.
"The prices these guys are going to get are probably going to be higher than they've ever gotten in the history of this fishery," said Temple, who's been selling scallops for 35 years. The higher price for fishermen also means consumers will pay more in restaurants and food stores.
Sea scallops, which are similar to but bigger than bay scallops, have been harvested along the Maine coast since the late 1800s, and at times, it has been the state's second most-valuable seafood, behind lobsters.
The state's scallops are considered high quality because they're brought to shore the same day boats drag them off the ocean floor with devices that look like big metal mesh bags or divers harvest them by hand. The large boats that drag for scallops on Georges Bank off southern New England can spend five days or more at sea before they bring their catch to port. The scallops are shucked at sea, with the shells thrown back into the ocean.
But Maine's fishery has had its ups and downs, with fishing increasing sharply when scallops are plentiful. In the 1980s and `90s, Maine fishermen routinely harvested well over a million pounds of scallop meat in state waters, with the catch valued at $5 million to $10 million a year. The harvest peaked at 3.8 million pounds worth $15 million in 1983.
In recent years, the catch has fallen off sharply, which regulators blame on overfishing. Fishermen caught 195,000 pounds valued at $1.6 million in Maine waters last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources. That was just a drop in the bucket compared to the entire U.S. wild catch, which totaled 58 million pounds valued at $455 million.
Still, scallops provide a supplemental income in the winter for fishermen who go after lobsters, groundfish and sea urchins at other times.
Maine instituted measures two years ago to help restore scallop populations and address overfishing. It shut down 20 percent of the coastline to scallop fishing, froze the number of fishing licenses, shrunk the season, increased the legal size limit and limited the daily catch. The areas closed to fishing are scheduled to open after the current season ends.
There are signs the conservation efforts have started to pay off. In Cobscook Bay near Canada, the mass of scallops increased five-fold in one area just a year after it was closed to fishing. Fall surveys show promise in some, but not all, of the other closed areas.
"I think it's coming back," said James Ackley, a Machias fisherman. "But it took 12 to 15 years to get where it was, so it won't get back overnight."
The Maine scallop season began Dec. 17 and runs through March. Its opening day drew lots of boats, especially to Cobscook Bay. There, fishermen reported smaller and fewer scallops than expected, prompting the Department of Marine Resources to call a meeting with fishermen this week to get a handle on what's going on.
The scallop population is highly variable from place to place, and fishermen won't know for certain how successful the conservation efforts have been until closed areas are reopened next year, said Robin Alden, director of Penobscot East Resource Center, a Stonington-based nonprofit that works on fishery issues in eastern Maine.
"We don't know yet if the scallop closed areas are going to replenish," she said. "It'll probably be yes in some places and no in others. It depends on whether you chose the right areas in the first place and then what Mother Nature does with it."
But for the scallops fishermen get, the price will likely be high. Ackley and others expect perhaps $10 a pound or even more.
The U.S. scallop market has been strong in recent years, with the per-pound price that fishermen received rising 28 percent from 2009 to 2010 to $7.92 a pound.
With Japanese scallop exports way down after last March's tsunami and nuclear disaster, supplies remain tight and prices will likely stay high, Temple said. Although there's little, if any, health threat from Japanese scallops, buyers don't want to pay high prices for scallops that the public is wary of, he said.
"Japan used to send hundreds of loads of product over here, and it's tough to sell it now," Temple said.
The higher prices and rebounding scallop populations are good news for Maine fishermen, Ackley said. But he's concerned those factors could also result in more fishing that would send stocks plummeting again.
Maine sells 800 scallop fishing licenses a year, but last year, only 234 fishermen actually caught scallops. If the population and price are good enough, more could head out this year.
"I think the effort will be more this year than it's been for four or five years," Ackley said. "And I believe next year there will be even more effort."