GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 26, 2009

New rules may force scallop fisherman to old ways

Ebb & Flow

Changes in the federal sea scallop rules governing the hundreds of general category scallopers have infuriated Wally Gray, who often fishes out of Gloucester on his 44-foot Foxy Lady II.

The Stonington, Maine, scallop fisherman said those changes will probably force him to do what he did years ago out of New Bedford.

"I'm 50. I've been on a boat since age 3. My parents couldn't afford a baby sitter, so my father used to take me out lobstering. I started scalloping on small boats. Scallops were $1.20 to $1.40 a pound then. I moved off of the island (Stonington) when I was 19," said Gray, who crewed on or skippered big New Bedford scallopers from 1978 to 1994 before buying his own old wooden Novi-style boat in 1995.

He purchased the 20-year-old fiberglass Foxy Lady II in 2004 and has remained in the general category scallop fleet, which was allowed to fish days and bring home up to 400 pounds of shucked scallop meats each trip. Gray, like many of his general category peers, often led a nomadic life.

"If I wasn't catching (the scallops at a particular ground), I would go to the next spot (where there were scallops). I've fished from Maine to Cape May, N.J." he said.

Federal scallop rules, which set the total catch limit of 20,820 metric tons in 2009 for the full- and part-time big boats and smaller general category vessels, have already changed Gray's old way of scalloping. He had two choices this year, and he joined a newly-established, limited-access fleet with individual fishing quotas (IFQs) over dredging up 200 pounds of shucked meats a day in a new northern Gulf of Maine scallop area. Once this zone's 70,000-pound annual quota is caught, the fishing ceases until the next year.

Since the fishing "powers-that-be" needed additional time to iron out the individual fishing quota system, which they hoped would go into effect this year, participants such as Gray have had to work under a 4.6-million pound annual catch limit quartered into March to May, June to August, September to November, and December to February seasons, each with catch limits. Fishing stops once a quarter's quota has been caught; any overages will be deducted from the next season's catch.

"The second quarter lasted only 5 weeks. We will get three to four days of fishing, maximum, for the third quarter and then be shut down until December. We are more monitored than sex offenders," Gray said.

The quota system should get underway next year. "Nobody in the general category wanted IFQs," said Gray.

The huge disparity over quota allotment between big boats and the smaller general category boats has enraged Gray and most of his peers.

"The general category gets only 4.6 million pounds, and the big boat fleet has over 44 million pounds, and they will probably catch 60 million pounds, and they won't get shut down. The big boats go over their TAC (total allowable catch) ever year, and they never get shut down. Big boats run the (New England Fisheries Management) Council, and NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) wants the least amount of boats. That's easy to manage," said Gray.

Once the scallop boat prices rose to $7 per pound or more, about 10 years ago, the number of general category vessels dramatically increased, especially along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

What's worse, "Next year we (the small boat scallop fishermen) will get (our annual quota allotment) cut in half. I thought my permit had good history — 30,000 pounds — but that will be cut back to 15,000 pounds next year, and that's not enough," said Gray. The small boats' quota reduction will go to the big boat fleet.

Last summer, after the June-to-August quarter quota had already been caught by early July, Gray tinkered with a 10-foot, 6-inch wide beam trawl in state waters as a fishing fill-in to catch flounders and monkfish. His Massachusetts fishing license with a beam trawl endorsement allowed him to do so. He worked this beam trawl just like his single scallop dredge, also 10 feet, 6 inches wide. "I didn't have to re-rig the boat," said Gray.

Unfortunately, beam trawling didn't work out.

"There was too much fixed gear inshore (lobster traps, gillnets and long lines)," said Gray.

Since the new scallop rules went into effect, Gray has complained to all levels of government.

"Every senator I talked with said, 'I'm sorry you got treated unfairly; that's the way it goes.' I don't have the money to fight," he said.

"They (the fishery powers-that-be) put me out of business. It's a shame. The scallop fishery could support both fleets (large and small boat). My boat is up for sale. If I buy the history (and get additional scallop quota) I need, I will have to spend $200,000, and I can't afford that," Gray said.

"If I do sell out, I will have to go back to running big New Bedford boats again (and making 8-to 10-day offshore fishing trips). I will have to do this for four to five years — that is if I can stand it. I'm too old for that stuff," he said.

Gloucester lobsterman Peter K. Prybot writes weekly for the Times about the fishing industry and related issues.