Scallopers Haul Back a Short-Sighted Vision

Scallop biomass on Georges Bank has declined steadily since 2010. Photo:NEFSC/NOAA

Perhaps the most interesting and troubling testimony coming from Senator Warren’s recent fish disaster hearing in Boston came from the scallop industry representatives. On paper this is the most valuable federal fishery in the U.S.—average large boat gross revenues in 2011 were $1,728,000 for about 75 days at sea with trip costs of about $2,000 per day. With this record of financial success, along with the constant reminder that New Bedford is the highest revenue grossing port in the nation, it’s odd that industry reps painted two different pictures.

Scallop industry lobbyist Drew Minkiewicz argued that the scallop industry was so well self-managed, so willing to reinvest its gold into critical research and development that the American taxpayer was apparently resisting paying for, so sea-turtle-friendly, so responsible, and so much—well—better than the federal government that the scallop fishery should just be turned over to the fleet to manage itself.

A limited access scalloper testified, on the other hand, that the industry was in such trouble that unless the New England Council and the federal government got out of their way and let them catch more scallops in closed areas, all economic hell was going to befall the limited access fleet. We learned in this testimony that 60 million dollars of scallops were dying of old age on the northeast side of Georges.

Time out!

I want to like the scallop fleet, I really do. It’s great that it is so profitable. I wish all New England’s fisheries could be. Moreover, it would be refreshing to have a model industry working on this public resource that could keep New England’s ports afloat while other species were rebuilt or could be more profitably marketed (I still can’t find a dogfish filet).

But this is not the reborn scallop fleet that I was imagining. In fact, it is troubling behavior from a fleet that should know better.

This is the same fleet and their political cronies who, in the mid-1990’s, adamantly opposed former NMFS official Andy Rosenberg’s closure of Georges Bank to scallop dredges even though the scallop biomass in that area was overharvested and rapidly declining.

A scallop trip I went on back then with one of the most respected captains in the fleet produced just 8,000 pounds of scallop meats after more than 11 days of non-stop dredging of the southeast flanks of Georges Bank. Average landings per unit of effort were then roughly 450 pounds per day-at-sea. If the captain hadn’t landed the same weight of yellowtail and monkfish, the trip would have been a bust.

Fortunately for the scallop fleet, NMFS and the greenies “got their way” back then, the scallops on Georges rebuilt, and New Bedford became the most valuable landings port in the nation.

A new and more responsible scallop fleet seemed to emerge from that experience. Led by some forward thinkers in the fleet, investments were made in science and R&D—commonplace for all successful industries but unheard of in New England outside of maybe the Maine lobster industry. The ocean responded. Average landings per unit of effort in 2011 went to 2000 pounds per day-at-sea.

Buoyed by their own sense of purpose and destiny, the limited access fleet pressed for access to the Georges Bank closed areas. Rotational closures were the long term answer, they said. Let us in, NMFS, they said, and we will fish the golden scallops there sustainably forever.

Surveyed scallop biomass on Georges Bank, 2006 and 2013. Maps: NEFSC/NMFS

Fast forward to last year: apparently landings and LPUEs are starting to drop. Recruitment on Georges may be dropping, and biomass is declining, too. The industry itself recognized painfully that harvest cuts were needed. So far, so good. That’s what responsible fishing businesses do when there is a downturn; they cut back and allow rebuilding.

But then, rather than some self-reflection and investigation of why the rotational program was not working as advertised, the “suits from K Street” start to show up at public hearings to get into more closed areas now that the old closed areas were losing productivity. “Scallops are dying of old age in those closed areas!” “Their shells have barnacles!” In other words, these scallops are acting more like habitat than entrees.

At a minimum, before managers allow this highly profitable fleet to pull their dredges in any new areas and destroy crucially important habitats that have been slowly recovering from past fishing damage, the fleet must answer why its stewardship of the last closed areas they were allowed to go into has failed to achieve its promised outcomes.

Maybe the scallop fishery should be given back to the fishermen as the industry lobbyist proposed to Senator Warren at her field hearing. But maybe it should be given to the general category scallopers instead, a quota-limited fleet who seem to appreciate both the bounty and the responsibility they have as fishermen.

Perhaps that is where the next generation of scallop industry leaders are growing.


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