September 19 – Meat of the matter

Today’s factismal: Every year, fishermen catch about 20% of the scallops living off the northeast coast of North America.

In 1990, there was great concern in the fishing community: we were running out of scallops. Though this might not sound like a big deal (especially if you don’t like scallops), it was. Not only did it mean that we were facing the end of an industry that brings in $370 million each year, it also told us that we were overfishing other species as well. Soon we’d be out of fish like cod, halibut, grouper, and even tuna. But how did we know?

Scallops are eaten across the globe (Image courtesy NOAA)

Scallops are eaten across the globe
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Part of our information came from the fishermen themselves. They were pulling fewer fish every year, and the fish were smaller; that was a pretty clear indicator that there weren’t plenty of other fish in the sea. But an even larger amount of information came from citizen scientists (only back then they called them “recreational fishermen”). These folks would report to NOAA (the agency in charge of monitoring our fisheries) the size and number of fish that they caught; many of them also participated in fish tagging, so that the migration of various fish could be tracked. And, by 1996, these folks had helped NOAA amass enough data to get Congress to act; they passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act which put some legal teeth behind NOAA and let them close areas of the ocean to fishing so that the fish stocks could recover.

And boy howdy, did it work! Since 1990, the scallop population has not only recovered, it has boomed. There are now more scallops living off the coast of North America than ever before (though some species are still in danger, thanks to shark fishing). NOAA scientists estimate that there are about seven billion scallops now living off of the East coast, up from just seven hundred million in 1993. And every year, more than one billion of them get pulled up by specially-modified trawlers; they are then cleaned and sold to hungry scallop lovers all around the globe. Last year alone, scallops brought in nearly $450 million to fishermen.

A scallop meets a lobster (Image courtesy NOAA)

A scallop meets a lobster
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Of course, there is still the chance that we might accidentally over-fish the scallops; the only way to be sure that we don’t is to check them where they grow using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). But an AUV can pull in more data than a team of scientists can analyze which is why they are turning to their old friends, the citizen scientists (hey! That’s you!). By identifying scallops on the tapes from AUV runs, you can help make certain that we always have plenty of scallops to eat even as you compete to “collect” the most scallops. If you’d like to take a dip into their data, then head over to Subsea Observers:

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