Scalloping: A Truly “Limited Access” Fishery

22 Nov 2021

By Melinda Young

Printed in the December 2021 edition of Commercial Fisheries News. Reprinted by permission.

It isn’t easy at the bottom of any fishery. When you start out, you’re supposed to pay your dues, earn your share and patiently grow your operation. I can tell you first-hand that when it comes to the limited access Atlantic sea scallop fishery, this is doubly true. A bureaucratic catch unique to this fishery makes life at the bottom a lot longer and a lot more expensive.

When I met my husband Andy in 2009, he had just acquired a general category scallop permit so he could day-scallop. It had 1,200 lbs. on it, and the fishery was a 400-lb.-a-day fishery. That means his permit allowed him to fish for just three days! But it didn’t matter because additional quota was available by “leasing” it from other fishermen. The guys who had quota available filed a piece of paper and, in exchange for an agreed amount per pound, leased you their right to fish. Leasing worked then, and it works now. We own less than 10,000 lbs. on our gen-cat boat, but we regularly fish three times that each year.

Andy and I bought our first part-time, limited access scallop boat in 2012. That permit, at approximately 40 percent of a full-time boat’s quota, required a substantial investment, business plan and loan. There are only 33 of these permits, and they are essential to keeping small operators in the industry.

But, as I said, it’s hard at the bottom. Our small, fiberglass boats can only go to sea for shorter trips, during good weather. Since they hold less fuel, we need to do a lot of jockeying to get close to the grounds. It’s also tough to get a dependable crew and captain. People don’t want to work on a boat with just 40 percent of a full allocation, at least not until other options run out. As a result, we have to wait until the scallops are small and the weather is unpredictable. We could settle for a less professional crew, but we don’t because that risks everyone’s safety.

The solution, at least to me, was clear – pay for more quota, like we did on Andy’s gen-cat boat. But that, he said, is forbidden in the limited access fishery. I asked him why it was okay in one part of the fishery, but not another. He had no answer other than it was the policy of the New England Fishery Management Council.

That left us hamstrung. The system seemed to want us not to get ahead, but we persisted. We did the only thing we could think of. We worked like hell to buy a twin to the first part-time boat. We still only have about 80 percent of a single-drag, full-time permit, but fishing one boat straight to the next allows us to offer our crew something close to a full-time share. We now work with professional guys, who like the flexibility and shorter trips we offer.

But to keep our operation afloat, we have to maintain two boats, each with its own insurance, slip and gear costs, even though we are fishing just one operation. We are not only forbidden to lease additional quota from someone else, we can’t lease our own quota to ourselves. What’s more, both of our boats sit for nine months doing nothing at all. As a small operator, we simply can’t afford to re-gear for another fishery.

We are grateful to be a part of this fishery. Our part-time scallop permits opened a path into a profitable and well-managed fishery. We are not crying poverty, and we are perfectly willing to spend our time on the bottom, since other guys have a lot more invested and a lot more experience.

But where is the logic in offering a leasing program to one sector of the scallop fishery but not another? If someone can lease to me to make my life and theirs safer and more profitable, what is the issue? If the gen-cat fishery can manage it, why not the limited access guys? If they want to try it out slowly, how about starting with the 33 part-time permits to make life at the bottom a little easier?

Melinda Young and her husband Andy, a fourth-generation fisherman, operate two part-time scallop vessels out of New Bedford and one general category scallop vessel out of Cape May, NJ.