Data-driven regulation a big hit with U.S. scallop industry

News that regulators were closing two prime fishing areas to scalloping this fall was welcomed by former scallop fisherman Jim Kendall.

Kendall, who now runs a New Bedford, Mass.-based seafood consulting firm, had been hoping for the restriction.

“We’re saving our resource like a bank account to draw from later,” he explained.

Kendall is not alone. While those who fish other species can be quick to lament federal regulation as a form of overreach preventing them from making a living, scallopers credit the National Marine Fisheries Service with helping the industry stage a comeback.

Increased reliance on data and detailed surveying of scallop fishing grounds have transformed the scallop management system over the past 15 years and helped create the Northeast’s most sustainable and profitable industry.

“We are in a lucky place with scallops right now,” said Emily Gilbert, an analyst for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “The fishery is doing well, it’s managed well, and fishermen agree with our operations.”

Scallop habitat covers an expansive area of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean — from Newfoundland to Cape Hatteras, N.C. Fishermen catch the mollusks with dredges that look like large purses made of 4-inch-wide rings that drag along the seabed, trapping the scallops of legal size.

Each year, NMFS conducts broad “stock assessments” of all fisheries to determine whether they are sustainable. When it comes to scallops, the service goes further. It conducts two types of surveys on the entire resource, dividing the habitat into zones of differing depths and using a video camera or a modified dredge to count the scallops. In both cases, scientists extrapolate the total number of scallops and the weight of their meat from more than 2,000 data sets.

Federal regulators and academic partners conduct the surveys on both research vessels and fishing boats. The result is a regulatory system that knows how many shellfish are out there, where they are and what size they are, as well as an industry that trusts decisions made from the data.

“It’s a unique relationship with the industry because they have buy-in,” said Dave Rudders, a researcher for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which conducts some of the surveys. “Cooperative research helps to bridge that gap and can form a common perspective to manage the fishery.”

Fishing consultant Kendall agreed.

“We have been willing to accept downturns when the surveys show less scallops to be harvested because we know what they are basing the data on,” he said.

The New England Fishery Management Council uses survey data to recommend an annual fishing quota, which is set by NMFS. In general, fishermen are allowed to catch 20 to 30 percent of large scallops located in open fishing areas.

The arrangement can be extremely profitable for scallopers, even as their fishing is restricted to fewer than 60 days at sea per year. Hovering above $10 a pound, market prices for scallop meat are double what they were a decade ago.

“When the government, industry and academia work together, we all win,” says Chris Wright, who captains two scallop boats based in Massachusetts, each of which can earn more than $1 million annually.

Bad years

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1990s, the scalloping industry was in dire straits. Fishing was at an all-time high, while the scallop population was at an all-time low.

Back then, only the dredge survey was used to monitor the scallop population. In 1994, the government closed three large areas of Georges Bank, a fishing ground off the coast of Massachusetts, to any kind of gear, forcing scallopers to concentrate their efforts on the rest of the resource, exhausting it.

“We were really up against a wall,” said New Jersey scalloper Jim Gutowski, who also serves as an industry adviser to the management council. “Back then, nobody would be able to conceptualize that the industry would ever bounce back.”

Fishermen were not convinced that the scallops were gone and were clamoring to get back into the areas closed in 1994. Scallopers based in New Bedford, Mass., decided to act, creating a Fisheries Survival Fund and hiring biologists at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, to conduct their own survey, which used submerged video cameras to look at areas where other equipment was banned.

The fishermen had been right; the once-bare beds were now swelling with scallops. NMFS reopened the areas.

“We provided a second opinion, and it benefited everyone,” said Kevin Stokesbury, who led the university team.

The incident had broad implications for the industry. Fishermen no longer trusted regulators, who they said had kept them out of healthy beds. Regulators, meanwhile, maintained that it was the closures that had allowed scallops to rebound.

The solution was the current management system. NMFS divided the fishery into management areas based on where prominent beds were located. They devised a system similar to crop rotation that would open and close beds on a rolling basis, giving dredged beds three- to five-year breaks to allow new scallops to mature before being fished again.

To support the new system, the service needed more data and incorporated video cameras into its annual survey. It also decided to conduct more detailed surveys each year of areas set to close or reopen. To fund the additional surveys, the industry agreed to set aside a portion of its catch profits — roughly $12 million to $15 million — each year.

“It’s an unusual arrangement, the way the regulatory system has evolved,” Rudders said. “We have fisheries that close areas to protect spawning and to protect fish habitat, but in terms of closing areas specifically in order to increase fishery yield, that’s really unique.”

The effort has paid off.

In 1999, the industry harvested 5.5 million pounds of scallops worth $55 million. By 2014, the numbers swelled to 41.2 million pounds of scallops harvested worth $470.3 million. To top it off, the fishery has been sustainable since 2001.

“Without a doubt, this is one of our more sustainable fisheries,” said Deirdre Boelke, a scallop fishery analyst for the New England Fisheries Management Council. “It has been a strong resource for quite some time.”

The million-dollar question

The data-driven management system has been particularly successful in catching unexpected changes in the scallop population.

While the fishery is typically made up of 8 billion individual shellfish, in 2003, the survey found 12 billion juvenile scallops in Georges Bank. In 2014, the survey found an even bigger boom of 20 billion additional juvenile scallops.

In each case, the Management Council moved to close the beds populated by the baby scallops, which at the time were smaller than a fingernail, allowing them to grow to legal size.

Stokesbury, of UMass Dartmouth, estimates that the shellfish discovered in 2003 helped boost the industry for the past seven to eight years. He expects this past summer’s discovery to support the industry during the next decade.

Without the surveying, though, regulators would have had no way of knowing the increase had occurred. Though the 10 years between the booms suggests they may be cyclical, scientists and regulators are uncertain what affects them or how to predict them.

It could be cod populations, water temperatures, currents or simply where the scallops land when they are large enough to sink to the bottom of the ocean.

“It’s the million-dollar question,” Boelke, of the council, said. “If we could predict these things, we would. Until then, we will keep surveying.”

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