Lights, camera,scallops!

Mar 26, 2024 | Plumbing the Depths

Along with seeing which color light worked best to attract scallops, researchers from Fishtek also experimented with trap design. Fishtek photo

By Doreen Leggett

The ‘70s disco hit “Stayin Alive” by the Bee Gees played as a parade of bay scallops quickly jetted, hopped and tumbled into a trap equipped with lights, the maritime version of a disco ball.

“We had a lot of fishermen contact us about this,” said Thomas Day, who was zooming in from England at a recent talk at the Cape Cod Maritime Museum.

The fishermen who reached out after watching the dancing scallops video were not fans of ruffled shirts and platform boots or Studio 54 devotees; they were interested in harvesting scallops in a more sustainable way. Instead of traditional dredging up the bivalves, lights could attract scallops.

Day, a fisheries scientist with Fishtek Marine, is working with about a dozen fishermen to see if the “scallop disco” phenomenon can be part of a business plan.

“We are equipping a pilot fleet,” he said.

Abigail O’Brien from the museum invited Day to speak after hearing about Fishtek’s work on National Public Radio.

“Scallop discos? That is automatically an attention grabber,” she said with a laugh.

The museum, on Lewis Bay in Hyannis, has science-based fishery programs and a “consistent visual exposure to the fishing industry” in the harbor. She was impressed that Fishtek’s work was reliant on partnerships with commercial fishermen.

O’Brien said Day was happy to talk about the research and encouraged any state-side fishermen to reach out.

So far, the work is only being undertaken in England, but Day said the idea of fish species being attracted to light has been something fishermen all over the globe understand.

“This was used thousands of years ago,” he said. “We have seen it work in the snow crab fishery and with Atlantic cod.”

Fishtek, founded in 1999, is a conservation and engineering company, interested in reducing the amount of fish caught unintentionally. Based in Devon, the marine tech firm has a line of products including acoustic pingers.

The team at Fishtek stumbled on scallop’s predilection for light accidentally, studying how to attract lobsters to pots.

Working with Captain Jon Ashworth, they discovered that lights didn’t work for lobsters. But they found enough additional scallops to whet their curiosity.

Ashworth, who fishes off the Cornish Coast, usually got about five scallops in each of his 35,000 pots. With the little LED lights he was getting eight to 12.

Intrigued, Fishtek received a grant from the British government and a quasi-public entity called Natural England to design more studies.

As work progressed, Captain Ashworth brought in about 120 scallops a day, 50 of which were keepers. So he was upping his earnings a measurable though not overwhelming amount.

“Not to be sniffed at, but more work to be done,” said Day.

Scallop potting provides inshore fishermen with the chance to expand crustacean catches with scallops, so the fishery remains sustainable and low-impact.

“We did a lot of work investigating the correct color of light, when light passes through water some colors attenuate faster than others,” Day said. “We found white light best.”

If the pilot project is successful, it could be a game changer. Scallops are the most valuable fishery in England, fourth most valuable in the United Kingdom, and with lobsters among the most profitable fisheries in the United States.

Traditionally, scallops are harvested by beam trawl or dredge, which can damage the bottom and are outlawed in some areas. Pots could allow fishermen into closed areas and make it easier to fish where wind farms are located.

Day said that because potted scallops aren’t tossed around by the dredge they stay alive longer in tanks, making them more marketable.

The next step, he said, is to see if pot-caught scallops are something that consumers will buy into.

“We have had a lot of interest from celebrity chefs,” he said.

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