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Survey Forecasts A Banner Year For Atlantic Sea Scallops

NOAA scientists estimate they saw about 10 billion sea scallops off Delaware and southern New Jersey this spring as part of an annual survey.

Scallop fishermen off the East Coast could soon see one of their biggest bumper crops ever. A federal survey in waters off Delaware is predicting a boom in the next couple of years for the nation's most valuable fishery.

Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks for young sea scallops on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. This year, when they stuck their camera in the water, they got a huge shock, says Dvora Hart, a research analyst with NOAA's Fisheries Service.

"We were seeing concentrations of several hundred per square meter, and to give a perspective on that, one per square meter is actually a high concentration," says Hart.

Hart estimates they saw about 10 billion scallops off Delaware and southern New Jersey alone – probably due to increased spawning at a closed fishing area further north. The closure of the fishing area gave the scallops more time to spawn — which they do each spring and fall. The larvae floated downstream and became the billions of scallops Hart saw in the mid-Atlantic this year. Closures like this are designed to boost spawning but "some years have more luck than others," Hart says.

And she says it's the most scallops their survey has found since 2003. That year, Hart says the animals were so crowded that "only about half to a third survived to a commercial size."

"But even if that's the case [in the next couple of years], that's an absolutely huge number of scallops," she says. "It'll be an extremely valuable fishery."

In 2003, the bumper crop led to a $500-million year for what's already the nation's most valuable fishery.

And Hart says scallop populations are up all over the East Coast. The juveniles found in their surveys will be big enough to harvest in the next two to three years at ports like Cape May, N.J. and New Bedford, Mass., which is perennially the country's top-earning port thanks to scallops.

Could this lead to cheaper scallops for consumers? In 2003, the giant crop cut per-pound scallop prices nearly in half. But Hart says fishermen have begun selling more scallops in Europe since then. So prices are higher now — around $16.99 per pound — and she says they're not likely to go down by much.

Annie Ropeik is a reporter for NPR member station WDDE in Delaware.

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