Sustaining Sea Scallops
Could Cooperative Research be a New Model for New England Fisheries?
They call them pearls of the Atlantic. Glistening with pan-seared succulence on fine dining tables worldwide, the sea scallop’s value is found not just in its flavor, but also its promise for a new era of sustainable seafood.
Over the past two decades, the unassuming sea scallop has brought on a quiet revolution in East Coast fisheries, one based on cooperation among fishermen, scientists, and government managers. Thanks in large part to the scallop, New Bedford ranks as the country’s number one fishing port (in terms of value) since 2000, landing an average of $400 million per year. This economic boost comes as stocks of several other North Atlantic species—most notably cod—are at an all-time low.
The scallop came close to sharing the cod’s dismal fate. Landings in the mid-1990s were a quarter of what they are now. In 1994, several areas of Georges Bank were closed in order to protect ground fish, a decision that left scallopers fighting over the dregs in less productive areas. The number of days each vessel was allowed at sea was slashed. From Maine to Virginia, boats sat idle at port or on the auction block.
Jesse Rose, a fourth-generation Wellfleetian, remembers those days. In 1997, at the age of 17, he joined a large commercial scallop crew out of New Bedford. By the end of the 13-day trip, the catch was so poor that he owed the captain money. It was a lesson he never forgot.
But a few years later, the National Marine Fisheries Service allowed an exploratory study in a closed area of Georges Bank and another off of Nantucket. They pulled up more scallops than anyone thought possible: 700 bushels in a 10-minute tow, recalls Ron Smolowitz, a former captain and gear designer with the Fisheries Service.
“It would have taken a vessel 40 hours of bottom time to do that outside of that area,” said Smolowitz, who now runs a non-profit research organization called the Coonamessett Farm Foundation, as well as Coonamessett Farm in Hatchville. “When the industry heard about this, the Rubicon had been crossed. I just saw that what we need to do is figure out a management regime that allows us to grow more scallops.”
Though a hardship for fishermen at the time, the closures had allowed the juvenile scallops to grow. Instead of getting 30 meats per pound, fishermen filled their cheesecloth bags with scallops twice that size. Those patty-like scallops became prized gems in fish markets, fetching over $10 to $15 per pound off the boat, and even more overseas.
Not only were scallopers reaping higher profits for their efforts, the larger, more mature scallops had been able to spawn several times in five to seven years in the closed areas, leaving a trail of juvenile seed in their wake. The Fisheries Service established six “closed areas” in New England and Mid-Atlantic waters, which opened on a rotating basis. The hunter-gatherers took a note from agriculture: by rotating the “fields”, the scallop seed could take root and grow, allowing populations and habitat to rebound, while fishermen harvested the productive areas.
“We close those ‘fields’, if you will, until they’re ready to harvest and then we open those fields and allow them to be harvested,” explains Smolowitz.
Within a short time, the scallop fishery was booming. In Provincetown and Chatham, the homeports of general category (dayboat) fishing vessels, fishermen switched from trawl fishing to scalloping. Though the days at sea and crew sizes were limited, the money was good enough to live on all year.
By the mid-2000s, Rose had been on commercial vessels for a decade, fishing for everything from surf clams to yellowfin tuna. But as a father, he wanted to find a way to make a living while still living at home. So he bought his first boat, christened it Midnight Our, and started fishing for scallops out of Wynchmere Harbor.
Luckily for Rose, he got into scalloping during some “banner years” just off of Chatham. On his first tow on the new boat, he remembers filling the hatch within eight minutes of towing. Times aren’t always so easy for dayboat fishermen, who compete with larger boats for scallops in near-shore areas. In recent years, the Cape fleet has been lured to more fertile fishing grounds in the Mid-Atlantic, but Rose opted not to join them.
“I love my family. The money in [off-shore] scalloping is great, but it doesn’t buy everything,” says Rose, who plans to try his luck closer to home this winter.