DMR Regulations Questioned after Scallop Fishermen Pulled from Water

Five scallop fishermen were rescued from frigid waters in Eastport on January 30th after their skiff sank as they returned from a morning of fishing on rough waters. The sinking led to some fishing families questioning the regulations set by the Department of Marine Resources. (Photo courtesy of United States Coast Guard)

By Lura Jackson

 

On Tuesday, January 30th, the high winds and precipitation were not enough to deter a group of five scallop fishermen from heading out to attempt to meet their quota. After spending the morning plying the rough waters of Cobscook Bay, the dragger returned back with its catch. The five fishermen – four men and one woman – moored their vessel in Deep Cove and proceeded to row inland in a 14-foot skiff. The small skiff wasn’t able to withstand the waves and it overturned, sending all five people into the 39-degree water. 

The skiff’s untimely flip was thankfully noted by a witness on shore, who promptly called the Coast Guard. With none of the fishermen wearing life jackets and the water well below comfortable temperatures, moving quickly was essential to saving the lives of the fishermen. According to general guidelines, individuals submerged in 39-degree water have less than three minutes before they experience a loss of dexterity and between 15 and 30 minutes before they experience a loss of consciousness. The Coast Guard immediately launched a 29-foot vessel with a recovery team and diverted a 45-foot response boat to the cove for additional assistance. 

When the Coast Guard arrived, one man had swum to shore with the intention of requesting aid for those still in the water. Another man was on top of the overturned skiff, and the remaining three people clung to the sides of the boat. All five people were successfully stabilized and treated for hypothermia under the care of Downeast EMS. 

“The people we rescued today are fortunate that a person observed them capsizing and called for help,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Holt, the executive petty officer of Station Eastport. “Because we already had a boat crew training nearby, our response time was significantly decreased.” Holt emphasized the importance of wearing lifejackets anytime one is traveling over water.

While the weather conditions were notably dangerous, and the five fishermen involved were demonstrating unsafe practices by not wearing lifejackets, the incident has prompted an outcry from individuals and families involved in scallop fishing. Regulations set by the Department of Marine Resources [DMR] limit the days that scallops can be fished depending on the month. For January and February of 2018, scallop fishermen are limited to Monday through Thursday. In addition, rather than having a seasonal catch quota, fishermen are regulated by a daily catch quota, meaning any days lost are a direct financial loss as well.

Opponents of the regulations assert that by restricting what days fishermen can go out, scallop draggers are faced with the difficult choice of obtaining income or potentially risking their lives. “DMR is going to have blood on their hands if they don’t do something about the days,” commented Jenn Moore of Machiasport. Moore’s husband is a scallop dragger and the issue is a constant concern. Others spoke in concurrence, suggesting that fishermen be allowed to choose which days they fished or to be granted alternate days if a scheduled day is not hospitable.

“If the wind speed is above so many knots, close it down for the day, and use an alternate,” proposed Christina Mallock of Lubec. “It would be easily trackable, and still government controlled, but safer for the fishermen. That, or make a seasonal quota instead of daily so they could make the decision to go or not themselves.” Mallock comes from a fishing family and used to accompany her father out on his scallop dragger until a fatal sinking prompted him to prevent her from coming. She now works for a buyer at HD & Sons Seafood, interacting with many fishermen as a result. “The men out there are my friends, my family, and my son’s friends’ fathers, and I worry all season.”

The DMR asserts that it was not the fishing regulations that endangered the scallop draggers. “The circumstance that landed those people being in the water had nothing to do with a fishing calendar,” said Jeff Nichols, DMR Director of Communications. “We’re glad they survived, but by their own admission they made a bad decision and it nearly cost them their lives. Fishing is inherently dangerous and requires good judgement.” Nichols said that reports from the incident “strongly suggest” that the skiff was overloaded.

Nichols said that the possibility of enabling scallop draggers to pick their own days has been discussed in the past. “Swipe cards, like those used in the elver fishery, have been considered as a possible solution. However, for a number of reasons, including technical issues for dealers who buy from state and federally permitted harvesters, that option has not moved forward.”

In an effort to make scallop fishing safer, the DMR has instituted the practice of using emergency closures in areas that have become depleted rather than starting the season with a shorter number of days, as has been done in the past. “By using emergency rulemaking to implement in-season closures, the Department can establish a season with more days initially, which provides more potential opportunity and flexibility for harvesters,” Nichols said.

Emergency closures have been issued for some parts of Cobscook Bay, which is the state’s highest producer of scallops. Whiting and Dennys Bay are no longer open to scallop fishing for the season.

Those who would like to share input with the DMR on how scallop fishing should be managed in the future are invited to participate in the regulations-shaping process before next season. They may do so at a public forum or by writing in during the open commentary period. A list of DMR hearings may be viewed on their website at www.maine.gov/dmr/laws-regulations/proposed-rulemaking.html.