For Jonesport fisherman Preston Alley, it’s hard to count on the scallop season. Recently, the seasons have started out strong, but they soon peter out.

“It’s getting hard to make something out of it,” Alley said.

Many Maine scallopers are in the same boat, said Trisha De Graaf, resource management coordinator for the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). In recent years, the scallop season has been marred by closures shortly after it starts. The instability hurts fishermen, she said.

“They thought they were going to get 14 paychecks, 14 weeks of work, when it really is only a week and a half’s work,” De Graaf said.

The state has had little choice but to close scallop beds, as surveys early in the season show they are quickly depleted by fishermen, but De Graaf believes it’s time for the state to provide a long-range vision for what could be a very lucrative fishery if it is stabilized.

Now the state has proposed an ambitious 10-year management plan for the scallop fishery that would employ some combination of limited access areas, rotational closures, and new restrictions in an attempt to create stability for the scallop industry. Fishery officials have held three public hearings and taken public comments on the proposal through October 15. While DMR officials have been working closely with Maine scallopers to craft the plan, it still has surprised some who first look at it, De Graaf said.

“It’s a bit of shock because it is such a long proposal,” she said.

Under the plan, the state’s scallop fishery would be divided into three zones. The first two zones for the southern and midcoast areas of the state would be divided into sub-zones and managed with rotational closures. On any given year, portions of the zone would be open to scallopers and portions would remain closed. Some scallop habitat areas would still remain limited-access areas, eventually phasing into the rotational management plan, De Graaf said.

State officials believe a rotational management plan will give scallops a chance to recover from heavy harvests. Such a plan has worked well for scalloping in federal waters, and closed scallop areas in state waters have seen robust recovery in a short period of time, De Graaf said.

But the most interesting plan for scallopers most likely will be the proposed regulations for Zone 3, which covers the Downeast coast, considered to have the best scallop beds in state waters. With the proposal, local scallopers are being given the choice to either go with rotational closures or opt for a shorter scallop season with decreased daily catch limits.

Their decision could affect scallopers up and down the coast. For years, scallopers have come from all over Maine to fish there, said Will Hopkins, Director of the Cobscook Bay Resource Center. Hopkins recalled an opening day in 1995 when an aerial photographer captured an image of 170 boats crammed into the relatively small bay.

“It’s overwhelming, that number of boats, and they’re all fishing cheek to jowl next to each other,” Hopkins said.

Some Cobscook Bay scallopers have publically expressed frustration that scallopers from areas with less-productive scallop beds come to scallop Downeast, which triggers early closures for the scalloping season. It’s the nature of a mobile fleet, but unfortunately many Cobscook fishermen don’t have the boats to be mobile enough to compete in other zones, he said.

“It’s simply not going to happen. There might be three or four guys in the area that can do it,” Hopkins said.

At a recent meeting of the Cobscook Bay Fishermen’s Association, more than 2/3 of fishermen expressed support for shorter seasons over rotational closures. The main reason is that most local scallopers fear that rotational closures will jam too much scalloping into too small of an area for the resource to remain sustainable, said Hopkins.

“Jamming 100 boats into 20 square miles is going to just scour the bottom. It’s going to clean out every single legal-sized scallop,” he said.

A shorter season with a decreased daily catch limit hopefully will diffuse fishing effort to some 58 square miles each year, said Hopkins. A lower daily catch limit also might discourage fishermen from the other two zones to make the long trek to the bay, he said. Ultimately, he believes, it could lead to a stronger scallop season up and down the coast.

Togue Brawn, owner of Maine Dayboat Scallops in Bath, is concerned rotational management may encourage overharvesting of reopened scallop beds. Brawn until recently worked with the DMR and remembers how hard it was to push through the closures that have allowed some scallop beds to recover. She would rather see a more conservative approach than what’s being proposed to protect the fragile recovery.

“If we don’t have conservative management, fishermen could totally obliterate that,” Brawn said.

 Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer living in Medford, Mass.