NEW BEDFORD — Gentlemen, start your engines!
The unofficial 2011 scallop fishing derby begins at midnight Sunday with almost the entire scallop fleet from New Bedford and beyond preparing to steam out to sea to get a piece of the action.
Two rich fishing areas on Georges Bank, normally off-limits to scallopers, will be open officially on Aug. 1. When the clock ticks to midnight, hundreds of boats will be hovering on the area borders, poised to swoop in and scoop up their allotted 18,000 pounds of the lucrative catch.
While fishermen have until January to take advantage of the one trip that regulators grant each vessel inside a closed area, it is fear of an early closure that prompts this particular gold rush. Along with their target species, fishermen inevitably bring up the bottom-dwelling yellowtail flounder in their scallop dredges. Amid concerns over the health of that stock, fishery regulators have decreed that once the fleet harvests 313,000 pounds of yellowtail bycatch, these areas will close again.
The closed areas are not contiguous with Area 2, lying much farther offshore, 20 hours steaming from New Bedford. That area also has a much higher incidence of yellowtail. Area 1 is just 12 hours from New Bedford. The fleet was divided using a lottery, with half assigned to one area and the rest going to the other.
“It’s definitely going to be a derby,” said New Bedford fisherman Rick Lynch, captain of the Ocean Prowler. “Especially for the guys who run more than one boat.”
Lynch bought his ice early in the week in case there was none remaining when he got ready to sail.
Lynch was also critical of the National Marine Fisheries Service for taking so long to come up with its decision. “Our fishing year started on March 1st, and here we have to wait till Aug. 1st to find out what we got,” he said.
With his planned trip to Area 1, Lynch will leave the dock at noon Sunday to be ready for midnight. Then he will race back to port with his scallops. “I transferred an Area 1 trip from my other boat, the Leader, onto the Prowler. So we will be turning right around when we unload and going back out again,” he said.
Deirdre Boelke, a scallop plan coordinator with the New England Fishery Management Council, said the difficulties facing the scallop fleet with the yellowtail bycatch issue are well known by regulators.