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Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Science-industry partnership revives troubled fishery

  • Sea scallop
    Sea scallop
    The Atlantic sea scallop Placopecten magellanicus. Each of the dark spots is an eye. Photo by Dann Blackwood.
  • Closed Areas
    Closed Areas
    Map of closed areas along the northeast Atlantic continental shelf.
  • Dredge Ring Size
    Dredge Ring Size
    Field trials by VIMS scientists have led to an increase in the ring size of scallop dredges. The larger rings allow smaller scallops to escape, thus leading to increased yield and a sustainable fishery.
  • VIMS Scallop Team
    VIMS Scallop Team
    Dr. Bill DuPaul (C) with graduate students David Rudders (L) and Noelle Yochum (R) aboard a commercial scallop boat during a 2005 monitoring survey.
  • Sea Scallop Dredge
    Sea Scallop Dredge
    VIMS research has led to modifications in the size of dredge rings, mesh openings, and other dredge components. These changes promote a sustainable scallop fishery and minimize by-catch of fish and sea turtles.
  • Scallop Landings
    Scallop Landings
    Sea scallop landings have reached healthy and sustainable levels following establishment of a system of rotating closed areas in 1994. G.B. refers to Georges Bank.
  • Sorting Scallops
    Sorting Scallops
    Commercial scallopers sort their catch after a dredge tow.
  • Enforcing Closed Areas
    Enforcing Closed Areas
    GPS transmitters aboard commercial scallop vessels allow fishery managers to monitor and enforce compliance with closed areas. Warmer tones show increased fishing activity. Notice how the closed areas (rectangular boxes) are largely vessel-free. Figure courtesy of Dr. Paul Rago NMFS, NEFSC.

Good things come to those who wait

In the early 1990s, the scallop fishery along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard was on a sharp downward slide. Commercial fishermen were having to spend more and more time at sea, up to 240 days per year, but were catching fewer and smaller scallops.

Today, that same fishery is the most profitable on the East Coast, with more than $400 million in landed scallops per year in Virginia alone, and an additional $600 million in follow-on economic activity in the Commonwealth.

A large part of the recovery and growth of the East Coast scallop fishery is due to a long-term collaboration between scallopers, fishery managers, and scientists at VIMS. The partnership, which continues today, was begun in the mid-1980s by Dr. Bill DuPaul, then director of the Marine Advisory Services program at VIMS  and now a VIMS emeritus professor. The VIMS scallop program is now led by Dr. David Rudders.

Rudders, DuPaul, and graduate students and technicians at VIMS have together spent more than 1,000 days on commercial scallop boats and research vessels during the last decade, testing and refining dredge equipment to maximize sustainable scallop harvests while minimizing bycatch of yellowtail flounder and sea turtles.

As a member of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Scallop Survey Advisory Panel, DuPaul has also been instrumental in guiding development of a system of rotating closed areas that run from Virginia’s continental shelf waters northward to Georges Bank. This strategy allows scallop populations to rebound for up to 5 years following harvest.

“Traditionally, scallopers were harvesting animals at around 3 years of age,” says DuPaul. “Closing an area for 5 years allows them to take advantage of a scallop’s rapid growth between 3 and 5 years of age, when the animals more than double in weight. By waiting, the scallopers get more meats per shell and a more profitable product.”

The collaboration between scientists and fishermen hasn’t always been smooth. “When we said that they could harvest twice as many scallops in half as many days, that was a hard sell,” says DuPaul.” But the groups have developed a mutual respect, based on the success of the program and a healthy dialogue in which each side was willing to listen to the other.

Fred Mattera, a Rhode Island fisherman and member of the Northeast Cooperative Research Partners Program, lauds the contributions that DuPaul and his students have made to the scallop industry, noting that their work helped turn a struggling fishery into a model of sustainable profitability for the entire eastern seaboard.

DuPaul attributes his success in large part to “continuity of presence.” “We’ve been working with scallopers for more than 20 years,” says DuPaul. “That’s given us time to understand their needs, and for them to develop trust in the science.”