Scallop Vessel Access to Groundfish Closed Areas: A Management Success

Filed under: Opinion Pieces, Publications 

By Paul J. Howard

Fishery management successes do not come easy. In an era where fisheries around the world are declining, here in New England for the first time in over a decade we are experiencing significant improvements in many stocks, especially sea scallops. Without a doubt, the rapid turn around of the sea scallop fishery is a success story. Today, we know that collaborative research and adaptive conservation plans can work, the stocks will rebound, and the benefits can be huge.

Further, compounding the problems facing the Council was a lack of detailed information about the specific concentrations of scallops in the areas.

Problems

In 1998 the New England Fishery Management Council faced a very difficult management problem: the bulk of the Atlantic sea scallop resource was locked up in three large closed areas on Georges Bank and off of Nantucket. These three areas were closed in 1994 to all vessels fishing with gears capable of catching groundfish in order to rebuild depleted groundfish stocks. Several important issues and concerns compounded this problem:

  • Scallop vessel access to these closed areas could potentially harm key groundfish stocks of cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder that needed rebuilding.
  • These closed areas had been closed year-round since December 1994 resulting in improved benthic fauna compared to other fishing grounds in the northeast. Consequently there was a concern that these areas contained the only habitat totally protected from mobile gear, and therefore the closure to scallop fishing should continue.
  • The use of other types of fishing gear such as lobster traps had greatly increased in the areas while they had been closed. Allowing scallop vessel access might greatly increase the damage to lobster gear caused by scallop dredges.
  • Increased vessel activity from allowing scallop vessel access would make it more difficult for enforcement agencies to detect violators in the areas.

The Council faced another set of problems associated with not allowing scallop vessel access to theses closed areas:

  • The scallop fleet would be forced to fish on the diminished resource outside the closed areas, which would cause increased fishing mortality and possible localized overfishing. Although there was good recruitment outside the closed areas, if the scallop fleet fished in the open areas too intensively, it would sacrifice future landings by catching too many small scallops.
  • The scallop fleet historically depended on the harvest from these areas, and the Council had not anticipated that they would lose access to them permanently. The scallop fleet, like the groundfish fleet, already had lost access to a portion of the resource historically available to them on the Northeast Peak of Georges Bank as the result of a U.S.- Canadian EEZ boundary decision in 1984. The activity of Canadian scallop vessels in the Canadian portion of the groundfish closed areas also made the fairness of the Area II closure to U.S. scallop vessels an issue.
  • There was the possibility that a large amount of scallops within the closed areas might decline due to disease or predation before they could be harvested.

Further, compounding the problems facing the Council was a lack of detailed information about the specific concentrations of scallops in the areas. Although the NMFS scallop resource survey provided excellent information on changes in scallop abundance, it did not provide the information needed to determine the potential catch and mortality rates from levels of fishing that might be allowed in terms of days-at-sea (DAS) that were used to manage the fishery. (The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act prohibited the Council from using individual fishing quotas and simple quota management might have led to a derby fishery that would make it difficult to control bycatch, gear conflicts and poor fishing practices).

Solutions

Starting in 1997 the scallop fishing industry initiated experimental fisheries in the closed area to collect information about local concentrations of scallops, habitat impacts, and methods to reduce groundfish bycatch in scallop dredges. The industry was supported by scientists working with the Scallop Fisheries Survival Fund, the Center for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts (CMAST), the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the Council.

As a result, in the autumn of 1998, the Council’s Scallop Oversight Committee and Scallop Plan Development Team had much of the information needed to start developing options for a fishery in Closed Area II on the eastern part of Georges Bank. Throughout the fall of 1998, the Council engaged its Groundfish, Habitat, Gear Conflict and Enforcement Committees to address the many different concerns about such a program. The result of many meetings and public discussions was a program that met a broad range of concerns by carefully restricting and monitoring scallop fishing to part of only one of the closed areas, Closed Area II on the eastern part of Georges Bank.

Some of the management measures established to address these concerns were:

  • A limited season to minimize potential impacts on groundfish spawning.
  • Large mesh requirements for the scallop dredge twine-top to reduce the bycatch of groundfish, primarily yellowtail flounder, and other species.
  • A total allowable catch (TAC) limit on the bycatch of yellowtail flounder. When the TAC of yellowtail flounder was caught, the scallop fishery in the area would be closed — even if the scallop TAC remained to be taken.
  • A standard for observer coverage of 25% of scallop trips to collect catch and bycatch information.
  • A 10,000-pound scallop trip limit coupled with a deduction of 10 DAS for each closed area fishing trip, regardless of the actual duration of the trip. This measure provided conservation benefits for scallops, bycatch species and the habitat by reducing scallop dredge time on the bottom. Because scallopers were able to catch the 10,000 trip limit in fewer than 10 DAS, this provision reduced the amount of total scallop fishing time for the fleet as a whole.
  • Restricted areas within Closed Area II to protect gravel habitat and reduce conflicts with lobster gear.
  • Increased polling of vessel monitoring systems on scallop vessels and adoption of a buffer zone around the closed area to aid enforcement.

Results

Results of the 1999 scallop vessel access program for Closed Area II were:

  • 187 vessels participated in the fishery and made 644 trips.
  • Landings of scallops were about 6 million pounds with a dockside value of about $36 million.
  • The catch of yellowtail flounder was 912,475 pounds, which was lower than predicted.
  • The trips averaged six days in duration and as a result the program reduced the annual DAS available for fishing by 2,576 or by about 10%. (The actual reduction in the DAS fished cannot be precisely determined and would be somewhat less than 2,576.)

The reduction in available DAS for scallopers was beneficial in several ways. Although there is no way of determining the impacts with certainty, it probably reduced the overall environmental impacts from scallop dredging. Additionally, the most sensitive environmental areas within Closed Area II were not opened to scallop fishing. The program also demonstrated the value of cooperative research. Without close cooperation from the industry, NMFS and the Council, the public’s concerns about access to Closed Area II and the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act could not have been addressed. The outcome also would have been less favorable for the scallop resource, the industry and the environment.

The scallop vessel access program for Closed Area II, along with additional cooperative scallop research in Closed Area I and the Nantucket Lightship Closed Area, was an important first step in providing experience and information needed for the development of similar programs. The benefits to the nation have continued to accrue from subsequent management actions.

This year a similar program that included controlled access to parts of Closed Area I, Closed Area II and the Nantucket Lightship Closed Area was put in place. The Council currently is working on the annual adjustments to the Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan for the 2001 fishing year and an amendment that comprehensively addresses area management issues.

In the annual adjustment in November 2000, the Council will establish restrictions on fishing in the Virginia Beach and Hudson Canyon areas closed to scallop fishing (scheduled to open on March 1, 2001) to increase economic benefits and reduce fishing effort on other parts of the scallop resource. These areas will account for a large portion of scallop landings in 2001. In fact, as a result of the implementation of measures to allow scallop access to closed areas, scallop landings have increased significantly. In 1998 scallop landings were 12.2 million pounds. With the implementation of scallop access program measures, scallop landings increased to 22.4 million pounds in 1999, and are expected to be 30 to 35 million pounds in 2000 and approximately 40 million pounds in 2001, all while continuing to meet the goal of holding the sea scallop fishing mortality rate to a sustainable level.

These actions were developed as the result of cooperation between the scallop fishing industry, NMFS scientists and managers, independent researchers, the public, and the New England Fishery Management Council. Notwithstanding the fact that the closed area access program remains controversial to some, it is truly a management success story. Consumers, the industry, fishermen, and fishing communities have received tremendous benefits from these efforts.
The Council looks forward to working closely with these groups in the future to ensure that a broad range of fishery management and habitat protection goals continue to be met for the benefit of the Nation.

CAPT Paul J. Howard is executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council. Captain Howard retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1997 after a rewarding 25-year career. He has been the Council’s Executive Director for the last three years.

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