Glen Libby said Jan. 28 that there was extensive debate about scallop regulation at the January meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council. Libby serves on the council.

He said the council decided to change a decision made in November to allow a larger harvest of the mollusks, going from a 20 percent exploitation rate to a 24 percent rate. This translates to about seven million more pounds of scallops a year overall.

These rates are a percentage of biomass that can safely be removed from the ocean to allow for continued reproduction of the species, he said.

Biomass estimates are based on a variety of factors, Libby said.

“The biggest is the trawl surveys that are conducted each year,” he said. “Landings data is also factored in, and they do take into consideration the cutbacks that have occurred in fishing opportunity lately.” Libby said the NEFMC creates a catch per unit effort scenario to calculate how much is caught per hour at sea or day at sea.

“They are also incorporating state surveys like the Maine Department of Marine Resources inshore trawl survey,” he said. “In short, there are multiple data sources to calculate biomass. This is what they call the best available science. Even though it is sometimes disputed, it is what we have and is much more comprehensive than just a few years ago.”

“The rationale for the lower rate to start with comes from the uncertainty of days at sea as a mortality control,” Libby said in an e-mail message. “The council basically tries to hit a target by guessing how many scallops will be caught in a certain number of days. Over the last two years the scallops caught have exceeded expectations based on days allotted, hence the lower number.”

Libby said there was some debate whether the actual rate from this year to date, currently estimated at 30 percent, would constitute overfishing.

“In order to avoid this in 2010 the number was set at 20 percent,” Libby said. “The political pressure and slander in the press was unprecedented. There has never been a reversal of this kind before.”

Letters in the press and e-mails came from a variety of sources, including the Washington, D.C.-based Project to Save Seafood and Ocean Resources. In Massachusetts, both Gov. Deval Patrick and Democratic Rep. Barney Frank expressed concern about the lower limit.

Libby said he was concerned about the precedent set by the reversal, and he voted against the change.

“The much advertised loss of income in the press and from Capitol Hill was somewhat misleading,” Libby said. “It was calculated using a simple deduction of days at sea from [2009], using that multiplier based on last year’s income to extrapolate a figure of loss. In reality the fleet was expected to go well over this number and the loss would most likely have been considerably less than advertised.”

Libby said the new catch rate of 24 percent still represented a reduction in both days at sea and closed area trips.

“The industry did accept a cutback, just not the one originally settled on,” he said. “It should also be noted that the scallop industry has become very proactive when it comes to preserving the resource; they deserve credit for this.”

“I had a problem, however, with the possible overfishing level being exceeded,” he said. Libby said overfishing, a major concern of the NEFMC, is against the law the council is bound to uphold.

“I also had a big problem with the precedent that was set and especially the tactics both in the press and politically that brought this situation about,” he said. “In the end it was the overfishing potential that guided my vote.”

According to Libby, the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006 requires tracking and limiting all managed species.

“Limits are set on the amount removed from the ocean,” Libby said. “Since scallopers catch yellowtail [flounder] when scalloping and it is not the target species, it is considered bycatch.”

Libby said the scallop fleet is given an allotment of yellowtail under its management regime.

“If they had no yellowtail quota they would not be able to fish,” he said. “Since we changed the scallop rules to allow more fishing, the yellowtail catch will increase from this increase in activity.” He said the yellowtail quota is a fixed amount over the entire range and the yellowtail taken by scallopers would have to come from someone else’s quota.

“The groundfish fleet will have less yellowtail to accommodate the scallop fleet,” Libby said. “This will be an ongoing issue as things develop with not only yellowtail but virtually all the species that are caught by any fishery.”

Libby said that Magnuson-Stevens was also responsible for a recent move by the federal government to require recreational saltwater fishermen to be licensed.

Libby said local fishing sectors would be impacted by the increased allowance of yellowtail bycatch for the scallop industry.

“Any managed species has to be measured and accounted for no matter what fishery it is caught in,” he said. He said penalizing other fisheries in order to increase the scallop minimums was another reason for his vote against the increase.

“The good news is Maine catches hardly any yellowtail and never has; they do not live here in any great numbers,” he said.

“Southern New England, however, is probably not too happy with this right now since they have very low allocations of this species and do catch them,” he said. Libby said his own permit allowed 4 pounds of yellowtail as bycatch.

He said the NEFMC will continue to work on issues of species interaction among different fisheries.