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baby scallop on fingertip Juvenile sea scallop less than one year old. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Deborah Hart, NEFSC
dense concentration of scallops on the ocean floor Dense beds of small scallops photographed on the ocean floor in the Mid-Atlantic in 2015 by the NEFSC/NOAA HabCam. Big year classes like these will start being harvested in the next year or two.
scallops from dredge catch Scallops from the Great South Channel are piled against the dredge on a ship's deck during the 2012 federal sea scallop resource survey. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

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March 22, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Does Size Matter?

Social Scientists Examine Economics of the Sea Scallop Fishery

The Atlantic sea scallop fishery is one of the most valuable fisheries by landed value in the U.S., and has made New Bedford, MA the top grossing port in the country since 1999. For economist Min-Yang Lee at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), that leads to lots of questions about scallops.

Lee and colleague Greg Ardini, also an economist at the NEFSC’s Social Sciences Branch, are studying the market for sea scallops, specifically what determines scallop prices and why prices of the largest scallops, known as U10s, were higher than usual during two specific time periods, 2009-2010 and 2014-2015.

“Is it because there were fewer large scallops being harvested at that time, or because the public prefers larger scallops?” Lee asked during a recent conversation. “Or do more of the larger scallops get sold to restaurants, with fewer markets for smaller scallops?”

Sea scallop meats - the muscle that opens and closes the scallop's protective shells - are usually sold by dealers and some fish markets by the number per pound, with common sizes 10 to 20 and 20 to 30.  "U10" means there are fewer than 10 per pound, so they are much larger than the 30-40, which means between 30 and 40 meats per pound. 

In addition to price variation among scallop sizes, not all components of the scallop fleet receive the same price for similar sized scallops. Vessels that take short fishing trips of one to two days receive a small premium for U10 scallops compared with vessels that take longer trips. The reason for these price differentials is not clear, but the final destination of the landed scallops (i.e. local restaurants vs. nationwide or international markets) may be a contributing factor.

To sustain the fishery, scallops are managed with a rotational system. The fishing grounds are divided into areas; some are open to fishing and others are closed. When sea scallops have replenished in closed areas, those areas are opened and the areas where fishing has been occurring are closed to fishing so that sea scallops can regrow there. While scallops reach maturity at about age two and begin to spawn, they grow significantly during the next few years and are more than twice as large by age 5, bringing a higher value. Most scallops are harvested when they are age five or older.

According to Deborah Hart, a mathematical biologist in NEFSC’s Population Dynamics Branch who studies the scallop fishery, more smaller-sized scallops are expected to be landed in the Mid-Atlantic in the next fishing year, which started March 1. The reason: many of the older and larger scallops have been harvested as planned and there are a larger than expected number of younger smaller scallops in the same area.

Two years ago, Hart and colleagues found very high densities of two-year-old scallops during the annual federal sea scallop resource survey in the Mid-Atlantic; some of these will be caught in the fishery this year, when they are still at a fairly small size. In the Georges Bank access areas, which have been largely closed the past few years, Hart expects more U10s to be harvested.

For economists, these kinds of changes present interesting questions. “When areas are closed to fishing for a couple of years, boats will fish somewhere else. We would like to know how that affects where boats land their catch and what that means for shoreside facilities,” Lee said. “Do boats land their catch in the same ports, or do they move to those closer to where they are now fishing? If they move elsewhere, what do the shoreside facilities do in the meantime until the areas reopen and boats return?”

Some of the data comes from seafood dealer reports and vessel logbooks, but other aspects are harder to separate out. Lee and Ardini are mining a variety of databases and looking at other information sources to get some answers.

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