One Square Mile: New Bedford's Scallop Industry Is Thriving, But Is It Sustainable?

Feb 9, 2018

Is the scallop fishery well-managed? Most people, including scallop fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists, had the same answer: yes. 

"I think the harvest is being managed, compared to any other fishery in New England, fabulously," Peter Shelley, senior counsel at Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, said. 

The majority agree that the New England Fishery Management Council is doing a good job at keeping the scallop population sustainable and allowing fishermen to make a good living.  

Fishermen use scallop dredges like these to harvest scallops from the sea floor by dragging it along scallop beds.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Last year, commercial fishermen landed more than $300 million worth of fish at the Port of New Bedford, and 85 percent of that value came from scallops.

Michael Quinn, whose family has been in the scallop fishing industry for 30 years, said he believes the industry is well-managed partly because of the collaboration between fishermen and researchers.

"We get to take scientists directly on our vessels," Quinn said. "We go out to sea with them. We’re living with these people for a week at a time doing all the data together." 

Data on the scallop population is collected through drop camera surveys. That's when scientists attach cameras to a big, metal, square frame and drop it to the bottom of the ocean. They take pictures of the scallops and then scientists on the management council's Plan Development Team use that data to help figure out how much fishermen can catch and which areas should be opened or closed for fishing. 

David Bethoney, research faculty at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology, assists with the drop camera surveys. He said there's actually a lot of scallops in the North and Mid-Atlantic Ocean right now. 

"The past few years, really 2012 and 2013, we’ve seen this incredible recruitment of scallops, and it's resulted in the highest biomass we’ve ever observed," Bethoney said. 

Scallops sit in the sand underwater in the Nanatucket Lightship area. This photo was taken during the latest drop camera survey.
Credit Marine Fisheries Field Research Group / UMass Dartmouth School of Marine Science and Technology

However, Bethoney said scientists don’t know exactly why that happened.  It could be a combination of closing off areas to fishing, a higher presence of food and fewer predators.

Whatever the reason, there’s more scallops. But, it turns out, that’s not entirely positive.

The point of closing fishing areas is to give scallops a few years to double in size so fishermen can catch the most valuable meat, but Bethoney said that’s not what scientists observed in the areas with dense scallop populations.

"There’s scallops that are probably about five years old and they are only 70 to 80 millimeters shell height on average," Bethoney said.

By that age, scallops should be around 100 millimeters. 

So regulators were left with a dilemma: do they open the areas for fishing, regardless of the scallops’ size because of how old they are? Or do they keep the areas closed and wait for the scallops to grow, but then risk them dying before they’re harvested?

The management council decided to open the areas and their plan is under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The new plan is projected to result in more than 60 million pounds of scallop landings over the next fishing year. That’s compared to just two decades ago when the average landings were less than 16 million pounds.

Today, scallops also have a very high price tag at the Port of New Bedford.

"Right now, the average scallop price (for 10 scallop meats per pound) is about $12, so the price is really good right now," Jim Rego, former scallop fishermen, said.

Jim Rego stands in front of commercial fishing gear at Standard Marine Outfitters in New Bedford.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Rego fished scallops for more than 20 years but has been shoreside for the past year and a half helping a close friend manage Standard Marine Outfitters, a commercial and recreational fishing supply store in New Bedford. 

Rego added smaller scallop meats, such as 20 or 30 a pound, cash in at around $9.

"But even at $9, if you brought in 10,000 pounds, that’s $90,000. So it’s still pretty good," Rego said.

Rego doesn’t have any worries about the value of scallops diminishing because he’s confident in the way the industry is managed.

"The data can only get better because they’re getting direct results. It can’t get askew when you have a science company with a fishing company hand and hand fishing," Rego said.

Rego stands by the counter at Standard Marine Outfitters.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

But even though scallop management seems to be going swimmingly (pun intended), Shelley has his concerns about New Bedford’s dependence on the animal.

"If the port allows itself to sort of fall into that fantasy that sea scallops will last forever, they’re making themselves really vulnerable to unforeseen changes in the future," Shelley said.

Those unforeseen changes being climate change. There have been concerns about ocean acidification thinning scallops shells, which could weaken their defense against predators. Climate change could also impact water currents, which could change the distribution of scallop larvae or the scallops' food.

Shelley does give the port credit for preparing for the future by diversifying their business opportunities, such as investing in the offshore wind industry. However, he sees a lack of sufficient urgency to bring change.

Edward Anthes-Washburn, executive director of the Port of New Bedford, agreed there’s not a lot of urgency because things are going well. However, he said, port officials haven’t been complacent.

"We have the infrastructure here, we have the ice houses, we have the fuel barges, we have the auctions, the offloading facilities here, and we’re going to always be working to stay as the number one fishing port," Anthes-Washburn said.

No one can know for sure what the future holds for the Port of New Bedford or for the scallop fishery. But Rego knows for him, one thing will always be true.

“You can’t beat a scallop wrapped in bacon. So yeah scallops will be good forever," Rego said.