LOWER TOWNSHIP - It may be fortunate that nobody has asked Dvora Hart to count the Atlantic sea scallops recently captured by camera images off the New Jersey coast.
Hart, a mathematical biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, knows numbers. She could count that high. The problem: It would take awhile.
“Ten billion is my best guess. It’s probably conservative and it’s very preliminary,” said Hart.
It’s being called one of the biggest scallop sets ever recorded, eclipsing one in 2003 fishermen harvested for years. The estimate of 10 billion is only for the most concentrated area, scallop grounds called the Elephant Trunk just southeast of Cape May covering more than 1,500 square nautical miles. The set actually extends as far north as Long Island and Block Island and as far south as the Delmarva Peninsula. Hart is still working on the overall numbers.
“The big concentration is southern New Jersey, a little north of Cape May, down to Delaware. You start to see them at 35 meters and the highest density is 50 to 60 meters. They drop off at 70 to 80 meters,” said Hart.
NOAA’s underwater camera recorded about 4 million images off the Mid-Atlantic coast earlier this year. Each picture is one square meter of ocean floor and Hart was seeing up to 350 scallops per image. Hart, the chief scallop assessment scientist with NOAA, puts that into perspective.
“Normally we’d see one scallop per square meter, which is actually good recruitment. We had a wide range of more than 100 per square meter and several places where they were on the order of 350 per square meter. This is an extreme event. It’s pretty amazing,” said Hart.
The find is great news for the Port of Cape May, where scallops are still the No. 1 catch but recent East Coast harvest cutbacks, about 20 percent averaged over the last two years, hurt the industry.
“This recruitment event in the Mid-Atlantic is huge and basically unprecedented,” said Peter Hughes, who chairs the Sea Scallop Advisory Panel to the National Marine Fisheries Service and works for Atlantic Capes Fisheries here on Ocean Drive.
“Not all the scallops will live, maybe one third will be harvested, but if we can catch 50 million pounds a year for 10 years that will create incredible stability for a fishery managed in a sustainable manner,” said Hughes.
Most of the scallops are around two years old and still need another couple years to reach full market size. Even with the expected mortality from starfish, crabs and other predators, Hart is predicting the set will generate a minimum of $500 million paid to fishermen, and this is just from the Elephant Truck area. She is also basing it on $10 a pound when scallops have been exceeding that recently as world markets take off.
Seafood value rises six-fold as it makes its way up to ladder to wholesalers, retailers and consumers so the $10 per pound quickly becomes $60. A fishery generates dollars for numerous businesses that support it and scallops are major seafood export so the bonanza will also help America’s trade deficit.
Subhead: Port of Cape May Ready
It’s been a tough time for local docks because of cutbacks but also because most scallop harvesting has been centered in New England the past two years. That’s where the boats, even those from New Jersey, have unloaded.
As the harvest now shifts to New Jersey vessels from New England south to North Carolina will be packing scallops here.
“The last few years it’s been guys from here going to New Bedford, Point Judith and Gloucester. This year it’s going to switch,” said Bob McDonough, a New Bedford captain who unloaded 7,000 pounds of the succulent shellfish at Atlantic Capes Fisheries on Wednesday.
After unloading, McDonough was planning to steam the scallop vessel Redemption back offshore to land another load, shucked at sea and put in cheesecloth bags, before coming back here to unload.
While Atlantic Capes Fisheries has 17 scallop boats of its own, it also will be unloading boats from all over the East Coast.
Hughes said 325 East Coast scallop boats will be allowed three trips this year, 17,000 pounds per trip, in a scallop area that includes the Hudson Canyon to the north, Elephant Truck in the center and Delmarva to the south. Together the three are called the Mid-Atlantic Access Area. This does not include smaller boats allowed to land 600 pounds on day trips.
“We’ve already had some small day boats from Maine and Massachusetts out of the Mid-Atlantic Access Area and I expect the bigger New Bedford boats to come down,” said Keith Laudeman, owner of the Lobster House docks.
Subhead: Rotational Closures
Scallops are a management success story that began by accident. Back in the 1990s scallops were fished so hard that harvests declined and they got smaller and smaller.
In 1998 the Hudson Canyon off northern New Jersey was closed to let the scallops get bigger. It reopened in 2001 with larger scallops but it took a couple years to realize their eggs and larvae had drifted south with the currents before landing on the sea floor at the Elephant Trunk. Scallops also swim, which can also cause dispersal.
Instead of allowing fishermen to go get them, they closed the Elephant Trunk to let them grow. Scallops that had totaled about 12 grams of meat when discovered in 2003 grew to 25 to 30 grams when harvesting was allowed in 2007. The harvest brought in $250 million. The rotational closure system was born.
These days East Coast scallop areas are routinely closed for several years at a time and it’s become the largest scallop fishery in the world. U.S. fishing officials are invited to other countries to explain the unique management system.
Hart, in fact, believes the new set is mostly scallop spawn that drifted down from the Hudson Canyon.
“The idea was to allow scallops to get bigger to increase yield. It looks like the second benefit is it allows them to spawn several times. With males and females closer together we had better fertilization success and this produces more larvae. Rotational closures increase scallops and increase larvae,” said Hart.
Hughes equates it to a farmer staggering his crops so there is always something to market.
The 2003 set found at the Elephant Truck produced harvests ranging from 18 to 24 million pounds a year. If the new set can do that Hart said it will take pressure off other areas that can be allowed to grow and spawn.
Scallop surveys have been conducted since 1979 but since 2012 high-tech imaging compliments the traditional dredging to determine stock sizes.
NOAA’s HabCam (habitat camera) includes stereo cameras and strobes, side-scan sonar, a plankton microscope, and a variety of environmental sensing instruments.
Designed and built especially for NOAA at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the HabCam is towed at about seven miles per hour and roughly six feet above the sea floor. It takes six overlapping images every second to create a continuous mosaic of the ocean floor. This year eight million images were taken here and in New England.
The HabCam was towed by the research vessel Hugh Sharp operated by the University of Delaware. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science did a separate dredging survey that recorded similar scallop densities.
The government found the scallops, it will be up to the industry to harvest and market them. The 2003 bonanza did cause scallop prices to drop. Since then new markets have emerged in Europe and scallops have become more popular in America.
Laudeman, who owns scallop boats and features scallop dishes at the Lobster House, is not worried.
“I think the price will drop a little bit but I don’t think it will drop much. People like scallops. They’re on all the menus and we have a high-quality scallop,” said Laudeman.