The amount of scallops harvested off the East Coast is on the decline for the second consecutive year, according to regulators, reflecting a decline in population of the lucrative shellfish. 

The sea scallop industry, which in recent years has brought in more than half-a-billion dollars annually, is one of the most profitable fisheries in the Atlantic. It’s vital to New Bedford, the nation’s top-earning fishing port, accounting for about 85 percent of all seafood landed on its docks. 

But landings this year are projected to have dropped by as much as 30 percent compared to just two years prior, according to an October news release — with critical fishing grounds south of Long Island showing a steep decline in population. The northern population remains strong. 

The 39 millions pounds of scallops projected to be harvested this year is still higher than the years 2013 to 2015, but substantially lower than 2019, when more than 60 million pounds were landed along the Eastern seaboard, according to data from the New England Fishery Management Council. 

Industry leaders, regulators and scientists stress that the decline doesn’t mean the shellfish are at risk of overfishing, and they say the industry is still very profitable, as prices have climbed to historic heights — peaking as high as $30 per pound. 

“Fishing has always been cyclical. We are coming off all time highs, so I think it’s just a normal correction,” said Eric Hansen, who owns two scallop vessels out of New Bedford. “It has nothing to do with over-harvest; it’s just nature taking its course.” 

It instead reflects a decline in the amount of scallops in the Mid-Atlantic fishing grounds, according to surveys. The expansive fishing grounds, stretching from south of Long Island to Virginia, played a vital role in the growth of the scallop industry over the last decade, when the scallop population boomed in the area. 

In 2017, the large rotational fishing area was home to about 160 million pounds of harvestable scallops. Now, surveys project that number has declined to 12.6 million pounds. 

Scallops on the sea floor.
Industry leaders say demand for scallops has boomed since the pandemic began. Though traditionally reliant on restaurants, consumers have taken to cooking the shellfish at home.

“That area kind of fueled the fishery since 2013,” said NEFMC spokesperson Janice Plante. “We got good use out of that resource, a lot of people greatly benefited from it. But that has gone through the fishery now. They are pretty much at the end of their cycle.” 

Closures of fishing areas on a rotational basis are an integral part of ensuring the sustainability of the scallop industry, regulators and industry members say. The council’s annual regulatory process is now in full swing. Though nothing is final yet, closures are being considered for certain fishing areas that could help the population rebound. 

“Establishing a rotational closure in the New York Bight would provide an opportunity to improve yields for all scallops, especially the smaller ones, and increase the potential for downstream recruitment,” the fishery management council’s news release noted. 

Regulators suggested that the surveys don’t spell bad news for the New Bedford fishing fleet. 

The same news release from NEFMC noted that the highest concentration of scallops are still found in fishing areas farther north — closer to New Bedford, around Georges Bank and Nantucket Lightship South. Fishery managers said fishing pressure in the coming years will likely be more focused in this region, with southern ships likely offloading to New Bedford’s processing facilities. 

“We will see most of the fishing happening in Georges Bank in the coming years. That’s consistent with where all the scallops are,” said Jonathon Peros, scallop plan coordinator at the NEFMC. “More volume will be coming across the docks in New Bedford, rather than being landed in ports further south.” 

Industry leaders say demand for scallops has boomed since the pandemic began. Though traditionally reliant on restaurants, consumers have taken to cooking the shellfish at home. Prices for scallops this year have peaked around $30 per pound, fueling jobs and profit for the industry, despite the decline in harvest. 

“While catch has been down, prices are that much higher,” said Andrew Minkiewicz, a Washington attorney who works with the fishing advocacy group Fisheries Survival Funds. He said it is simple supply and demand economics. 

Fishermen are wary of potential closures, but say they understand it as an important part of a sustainable fishery. 

“We have to trust what the scientists are telling us, as far as what is the proper thing to close,” said Hansen, who in addition to owning a small fleet of scallop vessels also participates in survey trips. “If areas need to be protected, it’s a good idea to let them grow.”

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