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The Atlantic Sea Scallop Shows How Effective Management and Collaboration Can Create a Profitable and Sustainable Fishery

A lucrative little appetizing mollusk has recently been making headlines – the Atlantic sea scallop. It is always inspiring for those of us in the seafood industry to see a fishery flourish, particularly one with such a delicious product. The Atlantic sea scallop is a shining example of how a devastated commercial fishery can rebound dramatically with full-force. Through cooperative management strategies and the collaboration of all stakeholders involved, the sea scallops now hold the title of the richest fishery in the nation.

The opulent sea scallops were nearly wiped out 20 years ago, yet now they are now a sustainable $1 billion industry. It is a success story that can be cheered for by fishermen and environmentalists, two parties that so often are at odds when it comes to fisheries’ management. The east coast sea scallop fishery was just recently awarded a certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as a sustainable, well-managed fishery.

A history of cooperative management strategies 

The early 1990s marked the collapse of the sea scallop industry along the east coast of the United States. The population had reached a record low and fishing was at a record high, a truly terrible combination that equals over-exploitation. Today, the fishery is at record highs for population numbers, landings, and prices. Several factors led to this remarkable recovery, but it can mostly be attributed to the cooperation and collaboration between fishermen, scientists, fishery managers and environmentalists.

After the collapse of the scallop fishing industry, the following measures were implemented to help recover the population:

  • In 1994, certain areas were closed to fishing gear that would target groundfish or scallops, allowing these wild populations to grow and even flourish.
  • Fishery regulations were altered.  Dredge rings are gear used to pull scallops and groundfish from the ocean floor. The minimum dredge ring size increased from 3 inches up to 4 inches, allowing smaller scallops to escape and grow larger before being caught.
  • Limits were placed on crew sizes and days that they could fish.
  • A “rotational management” system was put in place. Much like crop rotation, fishermen would harvest from one area during a season, then they leave that area alone. The younger scallops have 2-4 years to grow and reproduce undisturbed. The fishermen return when the scallops reach a viable size, as determined by scientific surveys.

These management measure allowed the sea scallop population to increase in size ten-fold since 1993. However, it took some convincing until the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to open the area to fishing again. Scallopers teamed up with marine biologists at Dartmouth to create the Fisheries Survival Fund. This team used submerged cameras to record the extensive beds of fully-grown scallops laying on the ocean floor. The irrefutable scientific data of a large and healthy population persuaded NMFS to reopen the fishery. The population of sea scallops has remained sustainable since 2001, prompting the MSC sustainable badge.

Most valuable fishery in the nation

Landing 50 million pounds last year, the Atlantic sea scallop industry is now considered the wealthiest fishery in the nation and the most valuable scallop fishery in the world. They make up an estimated 80 percent of the $411 million in landings in 2012 in New Bedford.

The little bivalve has made many scallop fishermen very happy. New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Cape May, New Jersey are the two ports that have experience the influx of scallops and cash. They are strikingly distinctive from so many other fishing ports. No rusty boats are seen here. Well-dressed jovial fishermen stroll among their freshly-painted vessels. Their new income greatly benefits the community as well.

“There is such a trickle-down effect for people who sell fuel, who fix boats, who do welding, painting, cleaning,” says Gail Isaksen, the owner of Fairhaven Shipyard in New Bedford, in an interview with the Boston Globe. “The fishermen feel like they can spend money. They’re buying better cars now, better trucks. Instead of getting a run-of-the-mill Sierra, they are getting a Denali.”

Like many other cities, New Bedford suffers from high unemployment and poverty rates, along with numerous drug and crime problems. The sea scallop fishery has provided a reliable and relatively affluent livelihood for four thousand fishermen.

 Protected and preserved by fishermen

The Atlantic sea scallop fishery is a beautiful example of cooperation and effective management. All stakeholders proved to be adaptive and focused on the science behind achieving sustainability. Fishermen themselves are the greatest stewards – they’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.

The scallopers are only at sea for about 90 days a year. It is demanding work. They first have to travel dozens of miles to fishing sites. Using steel dredges they rake the scallops from the sea floor, bringing up a muddy clutter rocks and the occasional bycatch. The crew sifts through the catch by hand, pulling the wavy round shells of the scallops free, immediately shucking them and putting them on ice for the journey back. In this manner one boat can haul 4,000 pounds or more a day. Even with just a few days at sea, a fisherman’s wallet can thrive. One successful 10-day trip can pull in a $500,000 profit. Depending on the crew size, each fishermen can make $40,000 per trip.  This provides ample incentive to keep the fishery thriving through effective management.

The fishermen are committed to maintaining a sustainable fishery. $10 million a year from the harvest is used to pay for scientific research on the scallop populations. They are the loudest advocates for sustainable fishing methods and they endeavor to keep their sea scallops growing and selling. We’ve seen too many cases of fishermen battling environmentalists and vice versa. The Atlantic sea scallop fishery establishes that they can cooperate – with incredible results.

A triumphant recovery

After so many stories of damaging fishing methods, overexploitation, and fishery collapse, it is brilliant to learn about such a triumphant recovery of a fishery from total collapse to complete sustainability and prosperity. It is stories like this that we have so much to learn from and to work towards. Join us in supporting fisheries that strive for sustainability. We are all passionate about seafood – let’s ensure that the sea will continue to provide for future generations.

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