Fishermen enjoying once-a-generation scallop bonanza

New rules aim to sort out limits amidst best season in memory

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 10/26/17

WESTPORT — A scallop season better than any in perhaps a generation has shellfishermen filling their boats to the legal limit in short order since opening day on October 15.

“Amazing …

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Fishermen enjoying once-a-generation scallop bonanza

New rules aim to sort out limits amidst best season in memory

Posted

WESTPORT — A scallop season better than any in perhaps a generation has shellfishermen filling their boats to the legal limit in short order since opening day on October 15.

“Amazing season,” said Everett Mills, “best in many years since 1985, maybe 1978.” Scallopers are finding abundance in both the East and West branches, and meat size is excellent too — nearly the size of a quarter rather than a nickel.

Just what that legal limit actually is had become a source of confusion involving plastic baskets, wire baskets, bushels and even memories of old fashioned feed grain sacks.

To set that all straight, the Board of Selectmen after much debate set new rules last week. To do so they followed the recommendation of the Shellfish Advisory Board and Christ Leonard, director of marine services.

From now on, the standard unit of measure is the plastic basket capable or holding 40 quarts. It replaces, once and for all, the old wire baskets which hold 32 quarts.

For the rest of this season, scallopers will be allowed to fill 5.5 plastic baskets, the equivalent of about seven bushels — about the same as stipulated in the current regulations.

And starting next season, that limit will be five plastic baskets.

Mr. Leonard who, like the Shellfish Advisory Board favors the five basket limit, said attempting to impose that now would be chaotic. “We can’t switch mid-season,” so best to stick with 5.5 baskets until next year.

With various types of baskets in use, and contradictions in what the regulations and actual permits state as the limit, “We’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place about what to enforce,” said John Borden.

That quickly became apparent at the selectmen meeting as talk of limits repeatedly became entangled in confusion over bushels and various kinds of baskets.

“We just need clarity,” said Tom Mello. “Forget the bushel,” he urged. Just talk in terms of baskets.

Although the reduction next year will be small, not all in the audience approved.

“I’d like to see it stay at seven bushels,” shellfisherman David Grace said.

“I don’t see why we have to cut back when we know all the stuff is going to die as soon as winter comes. We’ve all got a right to go out and get it … Why can’t we take as much as we can?”

But Skip Manchester of the Shellfish Advisory Board was among those to sound a note of restraint.

“I thought this was going to be a no-brainer,” he said.

Most of the scallops will be taken anyway over the course of the season — better to do it at a more deliberate pace. “It’s a matter of whether (it will last) four weeks or six or seven weeks.

“All we are doing with derby fishing is tearing the river bottom up,” ripping out the grass that shellfish spat need to survive.

“We need to back off on the river, respect it,” he said to applause.

Mr. Leonard added that limits have been developed over time on the basis of much study by Ab Palmer, Gary Sherman and others. The aim is to keep the fishery at a sustainable level and avoid the population crash that began in the 1970s.

Even in normal times, river scallop populations have been cyclical, he and others said — a good year followed by not much. He theorized that “the drought of 2016 was a tremendous help” in setting up this year’s bonanza.”You get too much fresh water coming into the river and it kills them.”

Scallop seeding programs in the river no doubt help the population, but the boom and bust cycles are driven by bigger forces. “This is a natural recovery,” Mr. Leonard said.

While last year only two scallopers took out commercial licenses, this year 28 licenses have been purchased with more joining each week as word gets out.. And every one of those shellfishermen is taking his limit every day, usually by mid-morning. It’s the biggest scallop fishery here in 20 years, Mr. Leonard said.

But the abundance comes at a cost — a 20 percent price drop, he said.

Shellfish Advisory Board member Ron Savaria, who also supported the proposed limits, said that the rapid catch rate hurts prices.

“This is only the second day of scallop season and already he market is flooded. Most of the guys are having a hard time getting rid of the stuff.” Limiting catches helps stretch the season and stabilize prices, he said.

But by last week, Southeast Shellfish stepped in and has been sending a truck to Westport late each morning to buy the day’s catch and deliver it to Cape Cod markets.

Another possible change that will be studied, Mr. Leonard said, is delaying the opening next year from mid-October to perhaps November 1. This would give scallops to grow more — add meat size — and produce a more lucrative catch, advocates say.

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