The Circle of Research and Scallops

Jun 28, 2022 | Plumbing the Depths

Mel Sanderson, Chief Operating Officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, records data from scallops every week.

By Doreen Leggett

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After a day at work Melissa Sanderson hustled home, ate a quick dinner, and set off for the Chatham Fish Pier to meet Captain Bob Keese who was coming in from a scallop trip.

He had just finished unloading and had already left to put his boat , F/V Sandra Anne, on the mooring. But he had left something for her:

A red cooler, emblazoned with the words, “RSA- Return to Fishermen’s Alliance. In it were live sea scallops on ice. The cooler has been busy the past few months, traveling on a dozen boats and getting rides to the office of the non-profit Fishermen’s Alliance after landing in ports across the Cape, including Harwich and Provincetown.

“Every week there are dozens of trips and whoever I get a hold of first is the lucky one who gets to bring in the 25 scallops,” said Sanderson with a grin.

Sanderson was back at the office around 5:30 p.m. with Keese’s catch and had started her weekly four- or five-hour stint processing scallops to aid in research to help the fleet. The two-year project is designed to track if major oceanic shifts, including increases in water temperature and acidity, are effecting how scallops reproduce — a meaty question as scallops were valued at $514 million last year, 64 percent of the state’s total fisheries landings.

“I think this kind of research is great and I think it is long overdue,” Keese said, taking a moment to chat about the project while he waited for his boat mechanic on a windy day.

Keese, who has scalloped for decades, has already noticed changes. In the past, scallops in deeper waters – about 70 fathoms – didn’t grow well. Now, they are big and marketable. Keese thinks it has to do with how climate change – and a shifting Gulf Stream and more wind – is bringing warmer water, and more food, down to greater depths.

“There is definitely something going on,” he said.

If water temperature changes enough, scallops in northern waters could behave as they do in the south, where they reproduce in the late spring or early summer as opposed to when they reproduce now: in the late summer or early fall. Scallops in New England also may start to spawn twice a year, like in the Mid-Atlantic.

“Changes in life history could have profound impacts on stock assessment and commercial fisheries,” said Sanderson. “This work is an important, near-term research priority necessary to continue the sustainable harvest of sea scallops from our changing environment.”

Scallop research has been a priority since 1999 and scallops are one of the few fisheries, and New England one of the few regions, that has a Research Set Aside, or RSA, program. Federal managers choose projects through a competitive process, though no public funds are awarded. Instead, recipients are awarded pounds of scallops, which have been “set aside” from the annual fishery quota for this purpose.

Successful applicants partner with the fishing industry to harvest their set-aside award, funding the science. Keese said that approach is valuable and convinced him to get involved for the first time.

RSA can be particularly pivotal for small-boat fishermen who can find it difficult to buy quota on the open market – the RSA quota is generally less expensive to buy so fishermen who do the work can make a profit in the marketplace.

“Getting RSA is a big deal, they are all super excited about it,” said Sanderson of the 22 fishing businesses involved in the project.

The scallop industry is successful, but there are concerns with the health of the industry and quotas – the amount fishermen are allowed to catch – is less than in earlier years.

Small-boat fishermen are ideally suited to this project because they fish nearly year-round, have low trip limits and short trips that let them land live scallops. For this project, the scallops are randomly selected from a single tow and captains take note of location, depth they are fishing, and, if possible, water temperature.

The research the Fishermen’s Alliance is undertaking, as well as a related project Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is doing on scallop growth potential, will provide clues about potential changes in the biology of the bivalve, and impact management decisions.  Currently, the health of the stock is gauged by the reproductive potential associated with meat weight. After this project, the stock assessment could be linked to gonad-based estimates, considered more reliable.

“What is the correlation between the size of the shell and the size of the meat and the size of the gonad and time of year? We can create good tables and make predictions of meat and gonad size,” Sanderson said. “That is the goal, having more precise information that can help them manage better.”

Those decisions are far in the future. Now Sanderson is gathering the same data for each scallop in the basement of the Fishermen’s Alliance in Chatham.

On this particular evening she has help because she is training Haley O’Neil, who is graduating from Unity College with a degree in marine biology.

Sanderson, who has been with the Fishermen’s Alliance for decades and involved in many research projects, would generally be listening to Phish or perhaps Yonder Mountain String Band, but for now the room is just filled with the sound of their voices.

“You just need to really dry your viscera and don’t forget your kidneys,” Sanderson said.

O’Neil blotted the viscera, which is basically the gills, mantle, stomach and dozens of eyes sea scallops are famous for, and weighed it. Weights are central to the project because information will be used to  help transition management from one based on meat (the portion of the scallop that you eat) to one based on gonads as well as find conversion factors for wet versus dry scallops weights.

Meat weight is often higher in mid-summer when resources are abundant and in the mid-winter when they don’t spawn. The study aims to see whether that corresponds to data gathered on reproductive capacity.

Unlike federal surveys, which only gather information from scallops in May and June, this RSA project will collect information every week for two years.

“With this project we will be able to compare when scallops traditionally spawn with our data. If things are changing we have the opportunity to see it week by week,” Sanderson explained.

The first thing they do is number and weigh the scallops.  That weight can be compared to the weight fishermen recorded at sea.

“We are trying to gauge how much water is lost between deck and lab,” Sanderson said, explaining that they also measure the water lost while the scallop is waiting to be processed.

“Whether that is important I do not know, that is up to the scientists to determine,” she said, “but we want to account for all the variables when they compare our data and protocols with the data and protocols from the federal scallop surveys- where the scallops are processed onboard the boat right after they are caught.”

The data crunching and analysis throughout the project will be done by researchers at Coonemessett Farm Foundation, which is a co-principal investigator with the Fishermen’s Alliance.

After all of the weights are taken, six scallops are set aside to go in a special oven for 24 hours to remove the water in order to measure a dry weight, which is more accurate.

“Scallop jerky,” said Sanderson.

George Maynard, the former Research Director at the Fishermen’s Alliance, developed the lab protocols and had to pull an all-nighter to determine the precise amount of drying time required, checking on the samples every hour to determine when they were fully dehydrated

Processing each scallop is painstaking and time consuming.

“This is not how scallopers take apart scallops. This is how scientists take apart scallops,” Sanderson said with a smile.

But Sanderson knows RSA provides short and long-term benefits for local, small-boat fishermen: “It can take more than a decade for results from a cooperative research project like this to impact how we manage the fishery.  The beauty of RSA projects is that the fishermen get the immediate economic benefit of accessing extra quota while waiting for their research efforts to improve the sustainability of the fishery.”


This article was prepared by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance using Federal funds under Cooperative Agreement Award NA22NMF4540050 from NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Department of Commerce. NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat. The statements and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA Fisheries or the U.S. Department of Commerce.




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