By John Pappalardo
Most everybody loves them, so much so that the scallop fishery is considered among the most lucrative in the world, making New Bedford the port with the highest value of fishing landings in the United States every year for the past two decades. More than $430 million worth of seafood hit the docks there in 2018; more than 80 percent of that was scallops.
What few people understand, however, is how different the Cape Cod scallop fleet is from their New Bedford brethren, though this summer, as more and more people bought the world’s freshest scallops directly from independent local fishermen, fundamental differences became more apparent.
The Cape Cod scallop fleet is comprised of about 20 boats, with another couple from Martha’s Vineyard.
Pretty much all of them are owned and operated by captains who live here, have families here, and work the one boat they own. Their boats vary in size, but generally speaking we’re talking about fishing vessels that are around 50 feet or so.
These Cape Cod boat belong to what they call the “general category” fleet, gen cat. This distinguishes them from much bigger boats in New Bedford that are known as the “limited access” fleet. There are other gen cat boats up and down the coast, as well as other limited access vessels that don’t call New Bedford home.
Gen cat scallopers are strictly regulated. For each trip, a scalloper files reports to the federal government that include where he’s going, where he’s been, and how much he catches. There is a hard limit to how much a gen cat captain can land per trip: 600 pounds of shucked scallops, period, per trip, most of them less than 24 hours long.
By contrast, the limited access fleet often takes trips that last five days, a week, even more. They also are strictly regulated but allowed to land much more. A single trip of 10,000, even 18,000 pounds of shucked scallops is not unusual, with crews of five or six working hard around the clock. Generally speaking, captains don’t own the boats; one family or corporation can own a fleet of three, five, even 16 vessels.
Scalloping is among the most closely regulated fisheries in the world, in large part because it’s so lucrative, and everyone has come to understand that protecting the resource is crucial to protecting major investments.
Sometimes when scientists identify areas of the ocean with new “sets” of baby scallop, they’re closed until the animals grow to market size. Some areas are set aside for a certain amount of trips and harvest per year, other areas left as “open bottom.” An annual total allowable catch is set, based on research and surveys about how much stock is out there. Once those limits are hit, scalloping stops in an area.
What’s more, our gen cat fleet harvests only 5.5% percent of that total catch. So if scientists and managers conclude that we can harvest 50 million pounds of scallop in a season, gen can boats are allocated a total of 2.75 million pounds for the year.
Given all this, our gen cat scallopers might leave Cape Cod, steam for four, five, six hours to reach the grounds they want (and are allowed) to fish. Then they’ll drop their scallop dredges and get to work. It might take only a couple of hours to catch their allowable trip, 600 pounds. They’ll then start steaming home, another four, five, six hours, shucking as they go.
It seems a little crazy to steam that far and use that much fuel, go that far off shore in a small boat, just to bring home 600 pounds. But the popularity and price of scallops continues to make those trips worthwhile, and being able to sell direct from the dock to friends and neighbors last summer surely helped.
Can this small boat, independent scallop fleet continue to survive, hold its own given how powerful and profitable the industry has become?
That’s where the Fishermen’s Alliance comes in.
Our fisheries trust provides subsidized scallop quota to our gen cat fleet, creating opportunity to fish our small share of that 50 million pounds (to use the example above).
We advocate for smart federal policies that protect the resource and reflect our priorities. I sit on what’s called the Scallop Committee of the New England Fisheries Management Council, where key recommendations about how, where, and when we scallop are debated and voted.
At the Fishermen’s Alliance we meet and talk with our members a lot, they keep us informed and help me bring good insights to the committee.
So knowing all this, maybe the next time you eat amazing scallops off a Cape Cod gen cat boat, they might taste even better than ever. Then again, maybe that’s not possible.