JONESPORT – On a warm, sunny day last week, diver Donny Engels dropped over the side of a fishing boat and into the cold, murky waters of Moosabec Reach near the bridge between Jonesport and Beals Island in search of scallops.
Engels was not harvesting, but was checking specific roped-off plots on the reach bottom as part of a collaborative pilot project between fishermen and researchers to determine if it is possible to seed scallops in depleted areas as a way to regenerate the troubled fishery.
Friday was the last day of the first phase of the project, and although the information still has to be correlated, the results seem to be positive, according to Dr. Brian Beal, the research director at the Downeast Institute for Advanced Marine Research and Education, who designed the project.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the animals stayed in the plots and how consistent the densities have been,” Beal said. “We haven’t lost that many to predators.”
There has been some mortality among the scallops, but it has been minimal, said Chris Bartlett, an extension associate with the Maine Sea Grant program, who has worked on the project. “They’re surviving, and they’re staying put.”
The idea, which came from the fishermen themselves, was to collect scallops and seed them in a closed area where they would be protected from harvesting to see if they would grow. It had worked a number of years ago when fishermen casually dumped a load of scallops into the water off the nearby ledges. After a few years, divers harvested a banner crop of scallops, according to Ernest “Junior” Kelley of Jonesport, who with fellow fisherman Morris Alley of Beals Island came up with the initial concept.
“One of the cool things about this is that it’s guys like Junior and Morris that really came up with the idea,” Bartlett said. “They’re trying to do something to help the fishery.”
Like most fisheries in Maine, the scallop industry has been under stress for several years, and some fear it is in danger of collapsing. In 1981, fishermen landed 3.8 million pounds of scallops valued at more than $15 million, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Landings have fluctuated during the past two decades, but the general trend has been toward declining catch, and in this century, landings have plummeted. In 2005, the last year for which the DMR has records, the catch was a meager 18,913 pounds valued at just $162,593.
“We all used to drag all along the reach,” said Kelley. “But it got depleted and nobody was able to do anything. Everybody would like to see it come back.”
Bartlett and Beal worked together with the fishermen for almost three years to develop the idea into a pilot research project. DMR officials approved a three-year closure for an area near the bridge in the reach and near Sheep Island. Local fishermen also backed the project.
“Nobody was against it,” Kelley said. “The draggers all wanted to shut off bigger areas. If this works, maybe the state will allow us to do it in other areas.”
Last month Kelley and Alley dragged for scallops and deposited them inside the plots at the two closed sites. They used two different methods to move the scallops to see if there was any difference in the survival rates. There wasn’t.
The low mortality rate also was an indication they had chosen the right time of the year to move the scallops.
“The sea temperature was around 40 degrees, and the air temperature was around 40 degrees,” Bartlett said. “It seems like that was a good time to move them.”
The team of fishermen, divers and researchers has returned to each plot regularly over the course of the one-month study, checking mortality and the number of predators attracted to the area. On the last day at each site, Bartlett and George Protopopescu, the institute’s facility manager and director of educational outreach, measured a randomly collected sampling of the scallops from each site, checking not only the density of distribution, but also to see if any growth had taken place.
According to Bartlett, they were seeing little growth, but the densities of scallops within the plots appeared to remain stable. The size distribution also has remained the same as when the scallops were seeded, he said.
The team seeded different sizes of scallops with a purpose. The larger ones will spawn, and the younger ones will have a chance to grow. Because scallop larvae live in the water column traveling on the currents for about six weeks before they drift to the bottom, there is no certainty they will settle in the same area where the scallops were seeded.
But the presence of adult scallops may actually attract the migrating larvae from other areas, according to Protopopescu.
“There’s some indication that larvae choose to settle in areas where there already are adults,” he said. “There may be chemical clues in the water that help larvae sense adults in the area. We don’t know yet if that triggers the young to settle.”
This year’s pilot project is the first step in what will be a much wider program. The first phase was designed to see if scallops could survive being moved and if they would survive in a new habitat, and it appears that experiment has been successful. The project design included returning to the two closed areas to check on the animals next year, but that part of the program has not been funded yet, Beal said.
The Northeast Consortium has provided funding for a two-year project to collect young scallops, or “spat,” as part of the overall study. The funding will allow them to place 250 lines with five or six spat bags to a line in the Jonesport-Beals area. The spat collection is the final phase of this initial project, Beal said.
“If we can collect the animals from the wild it will make much less of a disturbance to the environment to put small spat in the plot than dragging from a public area,” he said.
Using spat bags is a proven way of collecting young scallops, although it has had mixed results in Maine. Fishermen in the Stonington area have been very successful in using the spat bags, Beal said, while, efforts in the Cobscook Bay area have not been.
Some of the spat, which will be smaller than a penny at that time, will be seeded directly onto the selected plots. The rest will be place in specially designed floating trays and raised until they are the size of a silver dollar. Then they will be seeded in the plots. Their larger size, Beal said, should give them a better chance at survival.
The experiment seems to hold some promise for helping a once-thriving industry. The fishermen are behind it, and Kelley, for one, would like to see the effort expanded to more and larger areas.
Scalloping, along with lobstering, is one of the few fisheries that still offer an opportunity for young people, he said.
“We’d like to see our kids and our grandchildren be able to do it.”