Fishery council considering Mitchell’s plea to open Northern Edge to scallopers

Fishery council considering Mitchell’s plea to open Northern Edge to scallopers

Mayor Jon Mitchell and New Bedford fishing representatives are urging the regional regulatory council to open up the Northern Edge — a lucrative scallop ground that has long been closed to commercial fishing. The council, which shot the motion down five years ago, has agreed to consider the request.

On Tuesday, Mitchell delivered testimony to the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC). He cited challenging years ahead for the scallop industry, which is being strained by a slump in prices and fewer days at sea for fishermen; and he stressed the importance of the scallop fishery as a foundational part of the port’s economy. 

“The scallop fishery is facing some challenging years upcoming, after a few years of low recruitment,” Mitchell wrote in a letter to the council. “The industry would benefit greatly by adding these areas to its available fishing grounds.” 

The region under consideration is the northernmost portion of the broad and productive fishing grounds called Georges Bank. In 1994, the Northern Edge was closed to commercial fishing to protect habitat for spawning cod and other bottom dwelling fisheries. Thirty years later, scallop representatives told the council, groundfish populations like cod have continued to decline while the area has remained locked up to scallopers. 

“In those 30 years of closure, several cohorts of scallops, worth 100s of millions of dollars have come and gone,” Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney for the Sustainable Scallop Fund, wrote to the council. “It’s faith based management,” he added, in an interview. 

“Clearly there is no correlation between cod stocks and fishing activity in the Northern Edge,” said Wes Brighton, a New Bedford fisherman who sits on the council’s Scallop Advisory Panel. 

Mayor Mitchell reminded the council that New Bedford is the nation’s top-earning commercial fishing port. He said the waterfront supports over 7,000 jobs and more than 400 fishing vessels. “The Port is a major driver of the regional economy,” he said, and that is largely driven by the scallop industry, which represents upwards of 80% of New Bedford’s annual seafood landings. 

The scallop industry is regulated under a rotational system of management. Regulators, scientists and industry leaders routinely open and close certain areas to fishing to encourage population growth while concentrating fishing efforts in other areas. 

In recent years, they said, scallop populations in the areas currently open to fishing have reached the end of their cycle. Domestic landings have declined from 60 million pounds in 2019 to about 30 million pounds in 2022. Meanwhile, scallop populations in the Northern Edge have boomed, growing from an estimated 11 million pounds in 2017 to 27 million pounds last year, according to a combination of government surveys presented by the council on Tuesday. 

“Right now, there is a large concentration of scallops in the area that would benefit the industry,” said New Bedford council representative Eric Hansen. 

Mayor Mitchell and the scallop industry have pressed the council to consider opening up the Northern Edge for the better part of a decade. It has been shot down in the past, council members said, because of concern scalloping and other fishing activity that involves dragging gear across the ocean floor would disturb protected fisheries habitat. But a new study presented on Tuesday, conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, showed that the impact on habitat would be minor and reach full recovery between 10 months and six years, depending on the complexity of the habitat. 

The council did not make a final decision on Tuesday, but members said they are working towards submitting a plan to federal regulators that would open the Northern Edge to fishing in 2026. Mayor Mitchell and industry leaders said the timeline is too lengthy — and urged the council to open the fishing grounds this year. 

“Opening the Northern Edge would provide a key new source of scallops as other locations recover and scallop recruitment is allowed to take place,” Mayor Mitchell wrote. “I urge the Council to take this modest but meaningful step to open these areas to fishing this year.”

Email Will Sennott at [email protected].

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