STONINGTON, Maine — Move over, oysters, mussels and salmon. Scallops might be next on the list of aquaculture products grown in Maine.
Sea scallops are among the more lucrative commercial marine species caught in the United States, but raising them in captivity is not allowed under Maine law because of concerns about keeping them uncontaminated from naturally occurring toxins in the ocean. State law sets a minimum shell size of four inches and requires fishermen to shuck the ones they keep at sea, dumping the shell and intestines overboard, to reduce the likelihood of bringing the toxins to shore.
But a new pilot program in Maine is looking into whether scallops can be cultivated in cages in a safe, sustainable and profitable manner. Some in the industry think that allowing licensed operators to grow and sell farmed scallops may be a way to enhance a fishery that, while it is fetching top dollar, has struggled in recent years to make sure that the resource is not being overfished.
Kevin Scott is a partner in Blue Hill oyster grower E&K Shellfish, which has stocked a few state-approved experimental scallop aquaculture cages in Salt Pond. He has been working with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Maine Sea Grant program to see what kind of varying scallop densities in submerged trays promote the best growth rates. Scallops taken from the trays and measured on Wednesday had been growing in the cages for two years and generally had shells between two and three inches wide.
Scott said Wednesday that he and his partner Evan Young have been interested in trying their hand at cultivating scallops for a couple of years. He said that for the business to become viable, however, the state would have to allow the sale of whole scallops in the shell, and there would have to be a market for them. Scallops in the shell on ice at a fish market or live in a tank at a restaurant could be ways that farmed scallops are sold, he said.
“The space that you have to grow them out in and the time frame that it takes to grow them, you’re really looking for a live market in order to be able to get enough profit on the other end,” Scott said. “[Otherwise] you’d grow them for two years, and then you would have to cut them all down and sell them as a meat product for $10 per pound, whereas the same amount in the shell would probably fetch you $50 or $60 per pound.”
The bivalve mollusks are popular with consumers and are one reason the Northeast fishing fleet has been able to survive despite the sharp dropoff and resulting restrictions in the groundfish fishery. According to federal fisheries officials, the popularity and value of scallops is the reason New Bedford, Mass., with $411 million in commercial fish landings in 2012, was the highest-valued fisheries port in the country last year.
Maine’s coastal scallop fishery has declined significantly since more than $15 million worth of scallops were brought ashore in 1981. The value of Maine’s fishery bottomed out in 2004 when fishermen statewide were paid a total of $218,000 for the cumulative volume of 54,000 pounds of scallop meat that they harvested.
The following year in 2005, Maine scallop fishermen caught an even smaller amount, 33,000 pounds, but were paid a cumulative total of $272,000 because the boat price more than doubled, from around $4 per pound to more than $8 per pound, according to statistics compiled by DMR. At its peak in 1981, Maine’s scallop fishery yielded more than 3.8 million pounds of scallop meat, more than 100 times the volume of what Maine fishermen brought ashore in 2005.
Landings in Maine have crept back up somewhat in the past eight years, yielding nearly 290,000 pounds of scallop meat in 2012, but it has not been a smooth ride. In 2009, the second half of Maine’s winter scallop fishing season was almost canceled due to concerns about the health of the stock. The state since has adopted a new system of rotating area closures along the coast in the hopes of getting depleted scallop fishing areas to rebound.
The bigger jump, however, has been in the price. From 2005 through 2010, the boat price scallop fishermen got hovered around $8 per pound. It jumped to nearly $10 in 2011 and last year topped $11 per pound, generating a statewide total of more than $3.2 million in gross revenues for Maine’s scallop fleet.
Dana Morse of Maine Sea Grant, a nonprofit research and education group, is helping to coordinate the pilot aquaculture project. Morse said Wednesday that he sees the possibility of growing scallops in cages as more complementary than competitive with Maine’s traditional scallop fishery.
As Scott pointed out, Morse said, farmed scallops probably would be geared toward a live, in-the-shell market, while the traditional industry would continue to sell harvested meats. But unlike the traditional coastal fishery, aquaculture operators could produce fresh scallops year round and, because they would have no impact on the wild stock, likely could sell scallops with shells less than four inches in diameter.
“What I’d like to see is — this is why working with the fishing industry is important — is to integrate these industries together so they really work together,” Morse said. “I see lots of opportunity for them to complement one another.”
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for DMR, said Friday in a prepared statement that the department is “committed” to supporting innovation that has the potential to provide economic opportunities for Maine fishermen.
“Our decision to support this research project is a reflection of this commitment and our confidence in the partnership with the Maine Sea Grant Program and [the commercial fishing] industry,” Nichols said.
Stonington fisherman Marsden Brewer is another fisherman who, with state approval, is testing scallop aquaculture methods. Brewer has a few cages submerged off Stonington near Sand Island.
Brewer said Wednesday that he has a traditional scallop fishing license, but he has used it only one year out of the past eight or nine. He said that, though DMR is doing what it can to protect and boost the growth of scallops along the coast, the system of closing and opening areas doesn’t make for a vibrant fishery.
Brewer said he tried fishing last winter for scallops in an area off Deer Isle that had just been reopened, but it was too congested and got fished down and closed again too quickly.
“There were 29 boats up there, and it’s not a very big spot, and it has been closed for three years, and we got three days fishing out of it,” Brewer said. “There’s just not much future there that way.”
But, he added, “the other way, just having it all open [and] continuously beating it to death every year and not letting it come back hasn’t worked either.”
Developing effective scallop aquaculture techniques, and legalizing the practice, he said, would be a good way to provide some stability in the state’s scallop industry.
“This makes for opportunity,” he said. “It has lots of promise.”