Record prices help buoy Maine scallop fishery

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This one scallop muscle, recently harvested by Sorrento fisherman James West, weighed in at more than 0.4 pounds. Generally, if nine scallop muscles have a cumulative weight of at least one pound, they are considered large. West said Sunday that the prices he’s been able to sell his catch for this winter, which can command a premium if he catches larger scallops, have been above $13 per pound – higher than the record 2014 statewide average of $12.78. James West photo.

In the mid-2000s, when Maine’s scallop fishery hit historic lows for volume and value, its future did not look promising.

But thanks to unusually high prices that fishermen have earned for their scallops in the past several years, the fishery looks a lot different now.

Annual catch totals still may lag behind what they were in past decades, but according to data compiled by Maine Department of Marine Resources, 2014 was one of the most lucrative years the state fishery has ever had.

The volume of the yearly statewide harvest of scallop meat increased by 78,335 pounds to 584,000 pounds last year, and because fishermen averaged a record high price of $12.78 per pound for their catch, they had a cumulative gross income of $7.46 million. That is the sixth-highest annual value for the fishery in the past 65 years and the second highest in the past 30 years, according to DMR statistics.

Sorrento fisherman James West told me Sunday that he is not sure the state’s official statistics from the 1980s and 1990s accurately reflect the amount of scallops that fishermen brought ashore back then, so he was hesitant to compare the total value of the fishery in 2014 to past years. But he said the per-pound prices he’s gotten in recent years certainly is better than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and he said the prices he’s been getting throughout this winter are even a little higher than the 2014 statewide average.

“We probably averaged over $13 [per pound] all winter long,” West said, adding that his catches have been “pretty good,” given the 15-pound daily limit along the Downeast coastline. “Right now, the price is high so you can make pretty good money at it.”

In 2005, the scallop harvest in Maine bottomed out at 33,000 pounds, the lowest annual volume total recorded since DMR started keeping statistics in 1950. Due to a high average price that year of $8.23 per pound, the overall dockside value of that harvest was $272,000.

The year before, in 2004, the average per-pound price fishermen were paid for their catch was $4.01, the lowest it had been in 22 years. The 54,000 pounds of scallop meat fishermen harvested in 2004 had a cumulative value of $218,000, which was the lowest total for the fishery since 1970.

Landings totals were higher for a few years after 2005, but the fishery nearly was shut down halfway through the 2008-2009 season due to concerns about declining scallop stocks in state waters. That’s when the state began implementing a series of strict management measures that, according to DMR officials, have been paying off the past few years.

The subsequent increase in the scallop population along Maine’s coast has had a negligible effect on the nationwide supply, but has coincided with an increase in demand that has pushed up the market price. In 2013, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, the 505,000 pounds of scallops harvested in Maine amounted to 1.2 percent of the nearly 41 million pounds of scallops that were harvested nationwide.

Since 2009, when it was $7.41 per pound, the average price Maine fishermen have been paid for scallops has increased every year, sometimes by more than $1 per pound. Since 2011, when the statewide value of the scallop harvest was $1.74 million, the fishery’s value has grown by at least $1.5 million every year.

“Maine’s scallop fishery continues to improve as a result of DMR’s new approach to management,” said DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher recently said in a statement. “This is a great example of industry and the department working together to rebuild this signature Maine fishery.”

West said Sunday that he knows prices are not going to go up every year. He said he hopes fishermen won’t have to face reduced catch limits and that the price he can get for his catch continues to remain high as long as possible.

“I hope it stays up for another 10 or 20 years,” he said with a chuckle, “but your guess is as good as mine.”

The peak of the fishery for both volume and value was in 1981, when fishermen in Maine harvested 3.8 million pounds of scallop meat worth a statewide total of $15.2 million. Three times in the 1980s, and almost again in 1993, the value of annual landings in Maine was at least $10 million.

The season is expected to come to an end early next month.

Annual scallop fishery statistics compiled by DMR can be seen here.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter keeps track of how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coast shape the lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of coastal Maine residents and visitors. A resident of Ellsworth, Bill covers Acadia National Park, Hancock County, fisheries, marine-related topics and more for the BDN. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.