ANNAPOLIS, MD - Maryland fishermen say new federal regulations on sea scallops benefit large fishing companies in New England -- and put small boats out of business.
Last year, about 40 scallop boats worked out of Ocean City each day, said fisherman David Tedford. Now, with regulations restricting most of them to a few days of fishing per year, there is only one boat left. And the out-of-work fishermen are struggling.
Lawrence Murphy of Tilghman Island said he has already lost his home. He had invested thousands of dollars in a boat and fishing history, only to find out the permit he received would allow him to fish two days a year.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service says the new regulations are designed to protect the scallop population. But Tedford says it is about managing fishermen, not managing fisheries.
Tedford, 52, of Kent Island, got into the scallop business in 2005 after a life of working on the Chesapeake Bay. The decline of the shellfish population had taken a toll on the crab, clam and oyster industries, and Tedford had friends who were earning good money fishing for sea scallops.
So in the summer of 2005, he called the permit office and asked what he needed. They told him he needed to get a boat first. He didn't realize he could have gotten a permit for his little crabbing boat.
He had his new boat shipped from Canada, bought a dredge and built all the rigging himself. All said, he invested about $200,000.
Tedford and other fishermen docked their boats in Ocean City. They would travel 40 to 50 miles out to sea, catch the limit of 400 pounds per day, and come home.
The days were long -- sometimes 18 hours -- but it was good money. Tedford sold a lot of his catch to local restaurants and distributors. But a few months in, he started to hear dock talk about changes.
Tedford said one fisherman called the permit office and was told they shouldn't worry.
At the time, there were two types of permits for scallops. One was only available for boats that had caught a certain amount of scallops in past years. Only 350 of these permits are available, and Tedford said they are held by larger fishing companies in New England that often have multiple "trip boats" that stay out for 10 or 12 days at a time.
The other type of permit was available to an unlimited number of fishermen, but only allowed 400 pounds of scallops each day. A spokeswoman for the NOAA Fisheries Service said this permit was originally designed for fishermen who were not fishing for scallops specifically, but might catch some in the process of trying to catch other fish.
The permit was the type issued to Tedford and other small-boat fishermen, who returned to shore each day.
However, unbeknownst to the Maryland fishermen, a change was in the works. The National Marine Fisheries Service in late 2004 had announced to general permit holders that it might limit the number of permits available, and might only allow fishermen who had caught a certain amount of scallops before the control date to apply.
The control date was published in the Federal Register, posted on the fisheries service's Northeast Region Web site and in various fisheries publications, according to the April 14, 2008 edition of the Federal Register.
But Tedford hadn't read the Federal Register, and said he and other fishermen were not told about the control date when they applied for permits.
"How hard would it have been to put a warning on the permit application that I got every year?" Tedford said. "If I had known about it, I wouldn't be in the situation I am now."
Historically, the boats with limited access permits -- trip boats -- caught 90 to 95 percent of the total allowable catch, said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries in the Northeast. More recently, those boats were bringing in about 85 percent of the catch, according to the Federal Register.
The new regulations cap the general category -- the day boats -- at 5 percent of the total allowable catch. So the permits were doled out using a formula based on the fishing history of the permit, with each holder receiving a certain fraction of that five percent.
Tedford ended up with 2,900 pounds a year -- about seven days worth of fishing. Murphy has less, about two days worth of fishing. They say they'd need at least 50 or 60 days of fishing a year to make a living.
The permits are stackable, so Tedford could buy permits from other fishermen and add them together. But he said the average permit allows only about a week's worth of fishing, so he would have to buy multiple permits -- each one costing hundreds of dollars.
The impact reaches beyond the fishermen themselves. Joy Oakes, general manager of the Talbot Inn at the Talbot Street Marina in Ocean City, said the motel has lost business from fishermen who used to stay there when they came in. And each boat would burn about $1,000 in fuel each day, Tedford said, so diesel sales in that area have decreased significantly.
Plus, Tedford said, the only boats still fishing for scallops are the New England-based trip boats -- so restaurants and distributors don't have much access to local scallops caught daily.
Mike Katinas, president of Annie's Paramount Steak & Seafood House on Kent Narrows, said it has become much more difficult to buy fresh merchandise that meets his standards.
"From day boat captains, we receive quality merchandise that has not been tampered with and know that these individuals take pride and ownership of their products," Katinas said via e-mail. "The government has yet again kowtowed to big business lobbyists and eliminated the day boat captains -- small business."
The purpose of the permit change was to protect the scallop population, and allowing 95 percent of the catch to go to the trip boats was based on the fact that those larger boats historically caught the majority of the scallops, Frady said.
Tedford said he understands the need to manage the shellfish population, but said allowing the permitted day boats to fish 50 or 60 days a year should not make a huge difference -- especially when large fishing companies are still allowed to send out multiple boats and catch many more scallops per day.
Now, instead of fishing, he spends his days writing letters and working on getting a fix to protect the small boat scallop fishermen.
"They've created this problem, and they need to make some means to solve it," Tedford said. "Four years in, they pull the rug out from under me. I'm on the ground and they're kicking me."