Sunday, January 25, 2015

Scallop Nets Don't Have Eyes . . . and why this makes me angry

This morning I read an interesting article in the Portland Press Herald about scallop diving in Maine. Whereas my dad is a commercial scallop diver and has been for my entire life, the article wasn't "new" to me. But it is interesting to see how outsiders choose to report on the industry and the heavy politics within it.

My dad first began diving for scallops in 1978 or 79 when he learned how to scuba dive while at Maine Maritime Academy. During his free time he would dive into the Bagaduce River to pick up scallops for friends and the occasional professor. After college he shipped out for a few years on ocean going tug boats, but when he returned to Maine in the late '80s he also returned to scallop diving. Initially it was a part time gig, but as both urchins and scallops became more lucrative it turned into a full time job.

When I was a kid, my dad sold his scallops door to door. He had a list of customers he would call up and sell them scallops by the gallon. There were a couple of bed and breakfasts and other "wholesale" buyers, but most were friends, family and neighbors. My parents would package the scallops in ziplock bags and deliver them around town.


It was my dad's scallops that really pushed my parents into opening Gurnet Trading Co. They were tired of driving around town and dealing with finicky wholesale markets. The opening of a seafood market meant that they could have a stable market where customers would come to them.






My dad's story mirrors the one told by Mary Pols in her article. It is a dwindling community where almost everyone knows each other. In fact, two of the divers interviewed are well known to my family. Both divers sold urchin's to my parents when they were urchin dealers and Brian Preney did many of the renovations on my brother's store, Zach's Country Store. Both Brian and my dad have served on the Scallop Advisory Council and have been active members in pushing for smarter industry regulations and protections.

For the most part the article does a decent job illustrating the scallop industry in Maine, but there are a few points I would like to expand upon.

1. Several times in the article, there is reference to a dragger's net. With this, I take great issue. What do you think of when you hear net? Personally, I envision some sort of nylon mesh. Maybe something like this net being used to catch salmon.

http://www.aleutianseast.org/

But that is nothing remotely like what scallop draggers use. The real word is a scallop dredge.

sea scallop dredge
noaa.gov

It is made of steel and chains. It drags along the ocean floor and pulverizes reef into dust. The author by no means implied that dragging is non-invasive but few people fully understand the "net" that scallop draggers use. This is one of the biggest reasons divers hate to be lumped in and treated the same as draggers. It would take years for a diver with a good supply of dynamite to do a fraction of the damage done by a dredge in just minutes.

2. The author mentioned that scallop divers work in 50-100 feet of water. While divers can work in those depths, it is uncommon and inefficient. Without going too far into diving physiology (trust me, I'm a scuba instructor), a commercial scallop diver sticks to depths less than 60 feet. At 100 feet, a diver can only stay down for a few minutes or else risk getting decompression sickness (aka the bends).  By diving in 30-40 feet of water, a diver can safely spend hours underwater. Furthermore, at deep depths, a diver can only dive about three tanks in a 12 hour period. When he is scalloping, my dad dives about 6 tanks in a 6 hour period, far more than he would be able to do in deep water.

Diving decompression calculations further accentuate the difference between draggers and divers. A dragger can tow in virtually any depth, limited only by fuel and daylight. A diver is limited to shallow water (much shallower than many people realize) and if they do choose to dive deeper they will be exponentially decreasing their safe bottom time. 

3. The following is an excerpt taken from the article. 

Steneck theorized that divers might threaten the biodiversity of an area, plucking all the scallops that are particular to the Sheepscot River or Muscongus Bay. Or, if they didn’t care about the resource, by simply taking everything they see in an area. A dragger, he points out, can’t get everything; a net doesn't have a set of eyes on it. Divers laugh at this notion. They would never imperil the resource or be able to in the time their air supply or the conditions allot, they say.

I like that the author chose to follow up Steneck's position with a nod to the absurdity of this position. 

First, a scallop dredge does not have eyes, therefore it scoops up or demolishes everything in its path. There is significant by-catch when dragging. Whereas scallop divers do have eyes and the bycatch is virtually not existent (though you do get a few barnacles attached to the scallop's shell and occasionally a small fish hiding out inside the shell). 

Second, a scallop dredge does not have eyes, therefore it tows up undersized scallops. Yes the dredges have rings that help prevent this, but they are not perfect and undersized scallops make it to the surface. Whereas divers do have eyes, they can make an initial judgement on the size of a scallop on the bottom and leave it completely unmolested. 

Third, scallop dredges don't have eyes but they do have highly accurate GPSs and advanced sounding technology. A dragger can tow back and forth, over and over for hours covering every square inch of an area. A diver is greatly limited by air, current and stamina. Generally, and diver will get in the water and do a draft dive, swimming with the current. After the sack has been filled or the diver is running low on air, he will surface. If it was a good area he might have his tender drop him back off at the beginning again, or he might move on. Diving for scallops is about collecting the low hang fruit. It is too inefficient to "clean" an area. A commercial scallop diver would never waste energy fighting currents and "chasing scallops." Divers have be able conserve enough energy to make multiple dives in a day. Kicking across the current to get that last scallop is counter productive, instead a smart diver lets the current do the work and bring him to the scallops. 

Fourth, scallop dredges don't have eyes, therefore they are not limited by poor water visibility and can tow in a greater range of weather. Divers have eyes. But not really. In Maine, the water visibility is usually less than 15 feet and after rain it can drop to less than 5 feet. This winter we have had a lot of rain. That rain floods sediment into the water and shuts down visibility to a point where my dad can't dive. Even when the visibility is "good" scallop diving really is scallop hunting. You have to be practically on top of them to find them. I don't think having eyes is really an asset, scallop divers would do much better if they had antennae. 




4. Another excerpt from the article

Cheney hopes the Department of Marine Resources one day will be able to re-open the licensing program. “We do have to come up with some type of re-entry plan for people,” she said. “We have a whole generation that has missed access to the fishery.”

A new plan wouldn’t necessarily favor divers, however. The divers’ work is important and low-impact, Cheney said. “But to expect the whole coastline to be harvested by divers is just not a reality.”


First, a reentry plan is critical. My dad is 56 years old. Every year for the past ten years he has said "this year is my last." The winters are too cold and the weather is too bad, especially now that he has a vacation spot in Florida. He keeps holding on though, the money is too good and he doesn't want to risk losing his license. Some fisheries allow license holders to sell their license, others allow them to be given to children. If the DMR allowed either of those things to happen, I would jump at the chance. Instead we just sit and wait as the industry shrinks and the last few old men get too tired to battle the frigid winter Atlantic.

Second, why isn't diver harvesting realistic? My dad has a lot of experience and is pretty good at scalloping but he's not Superman. He's not a Navy Seal or some crazy fish-man. He's just a guy that has made a solid living off from a class he took in college. It's not rocket science. You can get a scuba certification in less than a week for about $300. Kids only 8 years old can do it and they can get a full certification when they turn 15. The equipment isn't even that expensive, my basic cold water gear kit was less than $1500. Sure you need a boat and a tender, but you need that to drag scallops as well. The industry isn't dwindling because no one wants to do it or its too hard. If being hard kept people out of an industry you wouldn't have clam diggers or lobstermen or even doctors and rocket scientists. The industry is dwindling because they aren't letting the next generation enter the fishery. If they took the dragger permits and opened up a lottery for diver permits, it would be a tough on the draggers but I guarantee they would be able to fill the lottery with applicants, not to mention the growth we would see in regional dive shops and instructors from an influx of new commercial divers.



It just continually blows my mind, that in a era where third world countries don't allow anchors to be dropped on their reefs, we allow our fishermen to dredge the holy living hell out of ours.

If you can't tell, I'm pretty opinionated on the dragger/diver subject. I read Mary Pols' piece and wanted thank her for it and expand upon some of the topics she touched. I'll get off my soapbox now. Thanks for your time.