PROVINCETOWN — This summer, a perfect storm — combining sky-high fuel costs, a scarcity of experienced crew members, low wholesale prices, sharp declines in what scallop fishermen are allowed to take, and costly quota — has been keeping Cape Cod’s small-boat scallopers off the water.
“There are a quite a few changing over to do other kinds of fishing because they can’t afford to go scalloping right now,” said Max Nolan, a scalloper from Eastham who owns the F/V Outlaw. Nolan fishes out of Provincetown, Hyannis, and New Bedford and has come to rely on the work-intensive practice of selling his catch directly to consumers, including from a truck parked near the former T-Time property on Route 6, a strategy he hopes will make up for low wholesale prices.
“I don’t know how anyone is making it,” said Chris Merl, a Wellfleet scalloper and captain of the F/V Isabel & Lilee, who does the same, selling his catch at the Orleans Farmers Market, the Bass River Farmers Market, and at Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis.
Atlantic scalloping, which stretches from the waters of Maine to North Carolina, is one of the most lucrative fisheries in the nation, with its yearly catch valued at upwards of $500 million. But this year (the fishing year begins in April and ends in March), regulators have dropped the total amount of scallops boats are allowed to harvest to its lowest level in over a decade, and the limit stands at just 41 percent of what it was in 2019.
The decline reflects findings in previous years by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists who perform surveys of the ocean floor to observe “natural recruitment,” or the prevalence of baby scallops — the future catch.
“We’ve had several years of below-average recruitment,” said Travis Ford, a fishery policy analyst at NMFS.
While most of the fishery’s value is raked in by industrial scallop boats out of New Bedford, advocates and regulators have tried to ensure that some part of the profit makes it to small-boat scallopers — the kind who fish out of Cape Cod.
The big boats, often between 70 and 100 feet long, take trips lasting multiple weeks and bring in thousands of pounds of scallops with each trip. The small boats, usually around 50 feet, work closer to shore, landing a maximum of 600 pounds on day trips in most areas.
Every year, NMFS and the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC), which is the chief regulator for the entire federal fishery, allocate 5.5 percent of the total allowable catch for the fishing year to the small-boat fleet, which includes about 20 vessels on Cape Cod. The big boats get the other 94.5 percent.
The big boats’ allocation is then divided among vessels by a maximum number of days that each vessel is allowed to spend at sea. The small-boat fleet’s allocation, on the other hand, is divvied up in the form of what’s called quota. In the context of these regulations, quota refers to the share or percentage of the small-boat fleet’s allocation that a specific vessel is allowed to catch.
Quota, in this context, is a fungible asset — it can be bought, sold, and leased among different vessels. And like stocks and bonds, what it’s worth varies with the market.
Merl said that in previous years he would go scalloping almost every day during the summer. Now, he’s down to once a week. His problem is apparent in the math: the small-boat fleet’s 5.5-percent allocation of the total allowable catch comes to 1,142,890 pounds this fishing year. And because no vessel is allowed to own or lease more than 2.5 percent of the total available quota, that works out to a ceiling of around 28,500 pounds per boat. Factor in the 600-pound trip limit and you get a maximum of 47.5 trips for a small boat over the course of the year.
“I’m trying not to even think about what I’m going to do for the rest of the year,” said James Gray, a Wellfleet scallop fisherman, as he unloaded his catch from the F/V Bada Bing after a July 1 scalloping trip — his 18th of the fishing year.
Overfishing in recent years by the big boats in areas close to the shore (there’s no rule reserving these areas for small-boat fishermen, and big boats face no daily limits) has made matters worse for the small-boat fleet, said Damian Parkington of Wellfleet, who owns the F/V Roen Kiel.
With in-shore areas depleted, local fishermen end up going farther out in search of scallops, which is a safety concern given the size of their vessels, said John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and one of 18 voting members on the NEFMC.
No one seems able to explain another twist in this year’s numbers: Despite fewer scallops being caught, which would normally cause wholesale prices to increase, wholesale prices of scallops have plummeted. At the New Bedford auction, the scallop price dipped to around $12 per pound in June; in 2021, a particularly lucrative year in scalloping, it was as high as $25 to $30 a pound, according to Undercurrent News.
Prices are beginning to improve, but so far only slightly. Those low prices at the start of the fishing year are particularly tough to take, given spikes in input costs. Melanie Griffin, another NEFMC member, called fuel prices a “huge” problem. Other costs like gear, boat parts, and repairs are extremely high right now, too, scallopers said.
And then there is the cost of quota.
Most active scallopers own only small amounts of quota and lease the rest. Parkington, Gray, and Nolan don’t own any quota, while Merl owns 0.185 percent, which this year comes to 2,120 pounds, the equivalent of about three and a half trips.
The cost of leasing quota has also spiked in recent years, scallopers said. NMFS records on the sales and leasing of quota are not public, but most scallopers said the current price is between $4.50 and $5 per pound. It was as low as $2 to $3 per pound a few years ago, Merl said.
Leasing the 2.5-percent quota maximum for a vessel, as Gray and Merl said they will try to do this year, can cost around $150,000.
The cost of leasing quota usually follows the wholesale price: when scallopers were able to sell their catches for high prices in 2021, quota became more valuable. But this year, scallopers say the leasing price has remained high even though scallop prices are down.
Partially easing the situation is the involvement of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, a nonprofit run by the Fishermen’s Alliance and the Community Development Partnership (CDP).
The trust bought quota when the quota system was implemented in 2008 and has leased it to scallopers on Cape Cod at below-market rates ever since. According to the CDP’s Pam Andersen, the price offered by the trust this fishing year is $3.50 per pound, and each scalloper can lease up to 8,000 pounds, about a quarter of the maximum amount of quota a vessel is allowed to possess this year.
Meanwhile, more scallopers are trying out Merl’s and Nolan’s solution to the financial crunch, and with the help of their families are selling at least some of their catch direct to consumers, which allows them to charge better-than-wholesale prices. At farmers markets, Merl gets $25 per pound for his scallops. He’s built a loyal following and likes interacting with customers. “It’s a joy to sell them scallops,” he said.
But selling is also a lot of work. It means coming back from fishing, packaging the scallops, icing them, transporting them, and finally doing the actual selling. Parkington, who has small children, said it’s too much labor for him.
Nolan’s experiment has not provided a drastic improvement in his finances, he said, because the extra income is just barely worth the work involved. “You shouldn’t have to start a whole other business just to get by in your business,” he said.
Merl, who has been scalloping for almost 35 years, said he’s cautiously optimistic about his future in the industry despite the downturn.
“I will figure it out as I go,” he said. “But all of those things do loom over you. Am I going to be able to stay in business? How long is this going to last?”
This is the second installment of a series of articles on the small-boat fishing fleet of the Outer Cape. The first part appeared in the June 29 issue.