Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Sea turtles are exotic creatures encountered while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.
An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s Ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s Ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s Ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.
A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

Featured image: A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photograph courtesy of USFWS.

A Greener Thanksgiving

By Christine Harris

Thanksgiving is a day of overindulgence. Americans eat and drink too much. We travel long distances by car or plane. From an environmental perspective, Thanksgiving is not typically a green holiday. However there are many easy ways that you can decrease your emissions and use of resources and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to make your Thanksgiving a bit greener:

Grow your own: In most parts of the country fruits and vegetables can be grown well into the fall. With a little planning many of your Thanksgiving favorites can come right from your own backyard or a plot in a community garden. If it’s too cold to keep the garden going into November, harvest earlier and freeze or can.

Check out your local farmer’s market: If you can’t grow it yourself, buy it from someone else who has grown it locally. You may even be able to find a locally raised free-range turkey at a farmer’s market or local farm.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.
Seattle Pike Place Market. Photograph by Christine Harris.

Limit travel: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Millions of us get on the road or in the air to celebrate the holiday with friends and relatives. Consider keeping your Thanksgiving celebration close to home. Technology has given us wonderful ways to connect with loved ones without having to burn tons of fossil fuels. Use face time or Skype to say hi to Grandma instead of making the 300-mile drive. If you are obliged to get on the road, make sure that your tires are well inflated to improve gas mileage. If your family has more than one vehicle take the more fuel-efficient option and carpool with friends and family if possible. Air travel uses far more fossil fuel than driving so if you are flying consider researching options for carbon offsets.

Plan the meal: If you are hosting, have a plan for what you will prepare and what your guests will bring. This will eliminate the possibility of having several of same dish and being left with too many leftovers.

Use what you have: Disposable plates and silverware are convenient, but using dishes you already have saves you money and lessens that amount of waste you produce.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Use natural decorations: If you like to decorate opt for natural decorations you can make on your own instead of elaborate store-bought centerpieces. Collect brightly colored leaves or cut some of that bothersome bittersweet in the backyard to use for homemade decorations.

Rethink Black Friday: One day of indulgence is often followed by another for those who partake in the retail “holiday” Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. If you plan to shop on Black Friday go into it with a plan. Figure out what you need and where you need to go to get it and stick to only those purchases and places. Don’t buy things you don’t need just because they are a good deal. If you can resist the urge to shop on Black Friday you can celebrate the counter-culture holiday of Buy Nothing Day instead. Avoid the crowds and spend a relaxing day with family and friends.

Featured image: American turkeys. Photograph by Christine Harris.

Restoring the Herring River

Text and photographs by Christine Harris

In 1908 the Herring River Estuary in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, a system supporting 1100 acres of salt marsh, was diked off, restricting normal tidal flow and eliminating all but 10 acres of the marsh. The reasoning behind the construction of the dike seems ludicrous in light of modern ecological understanding. Today an effort is being made to restore salt marshes throughout the country, including those of the Herring River Estuary.

At the turn of the twentieth century the quaint coastal town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts was becoming a popular resort area to which many wealthy city-dwellers flocked. One popular hotel, the Chequesset Inn, located near the mouth of the Herring River, attracted an elite clientele. Guests at the Chequesset, and other area establishments, enjoyed spending time relaxing by Wellfleet Harbor, but complained about the mosquitoes. At the time it was believed that the source of the mosquitoes was the Herring River, and it was thought that if the salt marshes of the estuary were eliminated, the mosquito population in the area would decrease significantly. Thus the Chequesset Neck Dike was constructed by the state in 1908, reducing the mouth of the river from a width of several hundred feet to six feet, and effectively cutting off tidal flow beyond the dike.

Cutting off tidal flow to the Herring River significantly affected the health of the ecosystem it supported. In place of native salt marsh plants the Herring River now hosts a number of invasive plant species, including a large amount of the invasive reed phragmites. Furthermore, without the flushing of the tides and the presence of saltwater minnows such as the mummichog, a type of killifish that feed on mosquito larva, the Herring River likely provides breeding grounds for more mosquitoes now than it did before it was diked off.

Once considered to provide little more than foul smells and insects, salt marshes are now recognized as biologically significant ecosystems on which many species, including humans, depend. Peat, the spongy layer of decomposing plant material which is the base of a salt marsh, has been recognized to provide a buffer from storm damage. When storm surges threaten coastlines, peat absorbs flood waters and reduces the height of these surges, protecting coastal communities from the impacts of severe flooding.

Salt marsh peat. Photo by Christine Harris.
Salt marsh peat.

Another beneficial feature of salt marshes is their role as the nurseries of the ocean. Over two thirds of all commercially harvested seafood species, including shellfish, finfish, crabs, and lobsters, depend on the salt marsh for part of their life cycles. Salt marshes provide cover and camouflage for many of these harvestable species when they are young and most susceptible to predation, and provide a safe place for breeding and foraging. Salt marshes also have recreational value as popular places to fish, kayak, and contemplate the natural world.

With knowledge of the benefits which marshes provide, local communities, the state, the county and the Cape Cod National Seashore have taken on the task of restoring several previously degraded salt marsh systems on Cape Cod, including that of the Herring River. Most of these restoration projects focus on the use of gradual tidal restoration to reintroduce saltwater, along with the species of plants and animals it supports, over the course of many years.  The Herring River restoration project centers around the reconstruction of the Chequesset Neck Dike. The proposed structure would provide access to the public for fishing and boating and have a series of sluice gates that could allow for incremental tidal restoration across a width of 100 feet. Construction of the new dike is set to begin in 2016.

Featured image: The Herring River Estuary.

Cultch is Clutch in Wellfleet Harbor

Wellfleet Harbor.  Photo by Christine Harris.
Wellfleet Harbor. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

For seafood aficionados the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts is synonymous with one thing: oysters. These briny morsels have been a staple of the town’s economy since the 1700s and are known far and wide for their unique flavor. The decline, recovery, and cultivation of oysters in Wellfleet follows the ecological understanding of these animals and has led to an innovative recycling project in the town.

First called Oyster Bay by Samuel de Champlain when he explored the area in 1605, Wellfleet Harbor has been a hotbed of oyster harvest and cultivation for over 300 years and was likely harvested by the native Wampanoag people for centuries beforehand. However, by the beginning of the 1800s the oysters in Wellfleet Harbor were gone. The disappearance is likely due to a combination of overfishing and a lack of cultch in the harbor. Cultch is a term used to describe broken shells used by baby oysters or “spat” as a substrate on which to grow. The spat attach to cultch and grow and live affixed to that substrate.

Oyster. Photo by David Monniaux courtesy of Wikicommons.
Oyster. Photo by David Monniaux courtesy of Wikicommons.

During the 1700s the shells of oysters and clams that were harvested from the harbor were used to make shell lime for mortar for construction and thus not returned to the water. Without the return of shells to the harbor spat had no cultch on which to grow and over time the oysters disappeared. With little understanding of the life cycle of the oyster, many of the people of Wellfleet believed that God was punishing them for their sins by taking away their most valuable food and economic source.

With the loss of its native oysters, the people of Wellfleet began to bring in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay to grow in the waters of Wellfleet Harbor and later be sold in markets in Boston. Though the oysters may have originated elsewhere, the flavor of an oyster comes from the waters in which it lives, so these imported oysters still tasted like Wellfleet oysters. Today the cultivation of oysters in the harbor continues to thrive.

In celebration of the importance of the oyster to Wellfleet, an annual Oysterfest is held in October each year. The event has grown in recent years and in 2013 an estimated 25,000 people descended on the small town to indulge in a variety of oyster dishes, listen to live music, browse products from local artists, and have a good time. With so many people consuming oysters many shells are left behind. At the event in 2012 an estimated 100,000 oysters and 10,000 clams were consumed. Five tons of oyster shells were collected and recycled, amounting to 43 percent of the waste stream from the event. These shells, and others collected since, are now being used as cultch in Wellfleet Harbor and are providing habitat for future generations of shellfish.

It is estimated that in the three years since the shell-recycling program began enough habitat has been added to Wellfleet Harbor for 60 million new oysters which is 15 times the annual harvest rate. The oysters also improve the water quality in the harbor by filtering 3 billion gallons of water a day. In 2012 Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), the organization behind Oysterfest, and the Town of Wellfleet won the Municipal Innovation Award at the annual Mass Recycle Awards.  This innovative program holds promise for the future of oysters in Wellfleet Harbor and beyond.

Wood Storks No Longer Listed as Endangered


Wood Stork. Photograph courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

We often hear stories of species teetering on the brink of extinction. Rarely do we hear positive news about the fate of a threatened or endangered species, but the continuing recovery of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) is one of those rare stories.

A large, bald, wading bird standing approximately four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the American wood stork population was drastically reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation as many of the Florida wetlands in which it bred and lived were destroyed.  This habitat loss led to a drastic population decrease from 40,000 breeding adults in the 1930s to around 10,000 in the 1970s. Today the population of breeding adults is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.



Wood Stork Florida habitat. Image courtesy of University of Florida.

The wood stork’s population increase over the past thirty years is partially due to the fact that the species has expanded its range and established breeding colonies in new areas in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.  These new breeding colonies have helped the species to compensate for the loss of some of its historic nesting grounds in Florida. The wood stork has also expanded its wintering grounds to include parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

On June 26, 2014 Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO Sally Jewell announced that the wood stork is being downgraded from an endangered to a threatened species.  Jewell made the announcement at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Georgia where an artificial wetland created in the 1980s now harbors 800 breeding adult wood storks.  Restored and artificial wetlands throughout the wood stork’s breeding range have helped contribute to its recovery.



Wood Storks in their habitat. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Although the population has made a significant recovery, not everyone is happy about the decision to change the bird’s status from endangered to threatened.  Florida’s chapter of the National Audubon Society has publicly decried the decision citing the decline of the species in its historic range as cause for concern.  Though the species is now breeding in areas where it didn’t when it was listed thirty years ago, many of the wetlands in which it bred historically have been further destroyed or damaged since it was listed leading to a population decline in some areas of Florida.

Although some consider the status change to be premature, the protection awarded to the species under the Endangered Species Act will be virtually the same as it was when the wood stork was listed as endangered.  The downgrade to “threatened” indicates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal agency that oversees the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, no longer considers the species to be at risk for extinction.  Thirty years ago many believed the wood stork would never see a status downgrade.  When the species was first listed in 1984 wildlife biologists feared the bird would be extinct by 2000.



Bunny-free Beauty: A Look at Cruelty-Free Cosmetics

By Christine Harris

Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Is our vanity worth the suffering of other living creatures? Though there is no doubt that safety should be ensured before a new product enters the market, modern science has provided effective testing methods that do not require the use of live animals for cosmetics tests. Many of the most widely-used cosmetics in the United States are tested on animals and it can be difficult to find products that are cruelty-free.

Fortunately PETA has amassed a searchable database of over 1300 cruelty-free cosmetics companies. You can also use the database to find companies that do test on animals.  Unfortunately many well-known cosmetics brands test on animals including Maybelline, Revlon, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor and Gamble, owners of Covergirl.  At first glance finding mainstream, drugstore brands that are cruelty-free may seem like a difficult task, but many well-known brands like Aveda, Paul Mitchell, e.l.f., wet n wild, the Body Shop and Physician’s Formula have all jumped on the cruelty-free bandwagon.

When compared to recent progress made by other countries in limiting and banning cosmetic testing on animals, the United States is lagging behind. In 2013 Israel banned the sale of all animal-tested cosmetics. In South Korea the government invested more than $150 million to establish a non-animal testing center for medicated cosmetics such as sunscreens and anti-wrinkle creams.

A new policy to take effect in China in June of 2014 will no longer require that cosmetics and other personal care products be tested on animals before they can be sold to the public.  Now the sale of non-animal-tested “non-specialized cosmetics” produced in China, including soap, shampoo, and some skin-care products, will be permitted as long as the ingredients in those products have already been deemed safe through past testing or are tested using European Union (EU) methods of non-animal testing.  The EU, which currently has 27 member nations, is at the forefront of cruelty-free cosmetics, banning the import and sale of cosmetics that include ingredients tested on animals in 2013. Also in 2013, India became the first Asian country to ban animal testing of cosmetics within its borders.

There is hope that similar strides will soon be made in the United States through the Humane Cosmetics Act. Introduced on March 4, 2014 by Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virgina, the Humane Cosmetics Act would make it illegal for anyone to conduct or commission cosmetic animal testing in the US. It would also prohibit the sale or transport of any cosmetics tested on animals or cosmetics containing ingredients tested on animals in interstate commerce.

Modern science has contributed a number of well-developed, non-animal tests for cosmetic products.  With these new methods available the use of animals as test subjects is becoming unnecessary and obsolete.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Rethinking Invasive Species

Invasive Asian carp jumping out of a river in Missouri. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.
Invasive Asian carp jumping out of a river in Missouri. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

Throughout North America new thinking about old enemies has led to innovative, and sometimes profitable, uses for some of the most noxious invasive species.

Those who spend time on the beaches or in the salt marshes along the northeast coast of the United States have likely encountered one of the most prolific and destructive marine invasive species: the European green crab (Carcinus maenas). Arriving in the Cape Cod area in the mid-1800s, it can now be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Virginia. The European green crab is a fierce predator and has contributed to declines of marketable species such as softshell clams, blue crabs, and lobsters and to a decrease in eel grass beds, an important marine habitat for many species.

Traditionally there has been little commercial value for green crabs due to the fact that they don’t have much appeal as an edible species for human consumption. Fortunately fishermen have recognized that a commercially valuable species, the American lobster (Homarus americanus), enjoys dining on green crab. A new commercial fishery has developed in Nova Scotia to capture green crabs for use as lobster bait. Currently 53 commercial green crab fishermen are registered with Nova Scotia’s Department of Fish and Oceans and a special trap has been developed for the fishery. With current market values, a fisherman needs to catch about 600 green crabs to make $100.  This may sound like a lot of work for a small return, but take into account that one trap can catch over 1,000 green crabs in one night and you get a sense of how profitable the industry could be and of the abundance of these invasive crabs.

Deliberately brought to the Midwest in the 1970’s to clean up fish farms, invasive Asian carp species have become so prolific that the biomass in some stretches of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois Rivers consists of 95 percent invasive carp. Carp eat low on the food chain which means that they disrupt the food supply of most other species where they are found. They have also proven to be a serious safety hazard to boaters. One of the introduced carp species, the silver carp, reacts to the sound of boat motors by leaping into the air. With some individuals weighing over 50 pounds these fish can do serious damage to a person or their boat.

Though flying fish may seem scary to some, they provide excitement for others, and thus the Redneck Fishing Tournament was born. This annual competition awards cash prizes to the fishermen who can net the most of these fish and works to lower their population at the same time. Though the tournament takes only a tiny dent out of the overall population, some are hopeful that marketing invasive carp species as an edible fish will help to decrease their abundance.

For those who are willing to give it a try, Asian carp are a palatable fish similar to cod in taste and texture. Recently a Parisian chef working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gotten federal approval to market the fish under the name “silver fin” to eliminate the stigma traditionally associated with the name carp. Currently no large scale fish processing plant can accommodate Asian carp, a species that is anatomically different from the fish those plants process now. If a processing plant were developed to process them, Asian carp could become a valuable commercial fishery, aiding in keeping the population in check.

There is no doubt that invasive species are one of the greatest threats to the integrity of ecosystems and the health of our environment. Though most will never be eradicated, with some ingenuity more invasive species could be put to good use and their populations reduced at the same time.

Birding for All


By Christine Harris

Innovative birding programs across the country are bringing this popular pastime to many unlikely candidates.  The stereotypical image of a “birder” to many would be a man who wears a floppy hat and a beige vest, is harnessed into a pair of binoculars and has a spotting scope slung over his shoulder. I won’t pretend that this description doesn’t apply to some of the birders I’ve encountered over the years, but as the pastime increases in popularity it has found some less-traditional enthusiasts.

The Michigan Bird Brains are a group of young birders organized by their birding mentor and teacher Donna Posont. Many youth birding groups have sprung up around the country, but what makes the Bird Brains unique is that they bird entirely by ear because they are all visually-impaired.  Donna Posont, who is also visually-impaired, teaches her students to identify birds by sound, a skill that can give them a unique advantage over sighted birders as pointed out by one of her students, seventh-grader Austin Shepherd. Sighted people can only focus on one bird at a time while Austin points out, “it’s special because we can hear lots of different birds at once.” The Bird Brains have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count for several years and may take on competitive birding in the future.

At four nursing homes in Connecticut another group of nontraditional birders has emerged: Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Randy Griffin, a registered nurse, seeking ways to improve the lives of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, teamed up with Ken Elkins, an education program manager at a  Southbury, Connecticut Audubon center, to bring birding to residents at four nursing homes in the area.  The program they developed, Bird Tales, introduces Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to birds through pictures, models, and recordings, and also suggests ways to make the nursing home grounds more bird-friendly.

All four of the Connecticut nursing homes using the program now practice organic lawn care to attract more birds to their grounds. Additionally, these nursing homes have seen a significant decrease in the amount of medication they are using to calm agitated patients. Elkins visits each nursing home twice a month and spends about a half an hour with each group. He also trains nurses to continue the program in between his visits.

Urbanites represent another unlikely group of birders. Perhaps the best know urban birding spot is Central Park in New York City. The park is a metropolitan migrant trap to which countless birders flock.  Organized bird walks catering to kids and adults alike are offered regularly in Central Park and are also offered in countless other urban areas across the United States including Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Tucson.

Saving Jaws

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharius). Photo courtesy of kqedquest on Flickr.

By Christine Harris

It’s easy to get behind an effort to save pandas or elephants.  These cute, cuddly, charismatic creatures can easily open up the wallets of even the most frugal conservationists, but when was the last time you considered supporting an effort to save a cold-blooded carnivore?  Sharks across the world are experiencing severe population declines as a result of hunting and fishing practices that leave millions of these animals dead annually.

The mainstream media has filled our heads with visions of sharks as evil, man-hungry beasts.  Films like Jaws, Shark Night, and Deep Blue Sea all feature great white sharks on killing sprees.  In actuality, a shark attack on a human is extremely rare.  According to the University of Florida’s Shark Attack Files, worldwide there were an average of only two fatal shark attacks annually between 1999 and 2009.

Large, carnivorous sharks like the great white prefer to feed on marine mammals like seals and sea lions.  Most sharks that “attack” humans have confused them with one of these prey species and will recognize their error when they take a “test bite” of the human and discover that there is little fat when compared to a blubbery seal.

Often surfers, particularly those in the great-white-rich waters off of Australia, are the unfortunate victims of shark attacks.  When one considers the amount of time that surfers spend in the water and the large, dark, shape they take on from below with their boards and wetsuits, it is feasible to imagine how they could be mistaken for a marine mammal.   Though a case of mistaken identity is little consolation to a person who is bitten by a shark, it does dispel the man-hungry myth we have heard so often in popular culture.

Though sharks have traditionally been thought of as a threat to humans, the opposite is more likely to be true.  In one year it is estimated that 79 million sharks are killed by humans.  Of those 79 million, approximately 73 million are killed for use in shark fin soup.  The main conservation issue facing sharks today is the popularity of shark fin soup, particularly in Asia.  As a larger middle class emerges in China, more people are able to afford this delicacy that runs about one hundred dollars a bowl.  The fins are acquired by catching sharks, slicing off the fins and discarding them back into the water where many of them die slowly.

Fortunately, a public billboard and commercial campaign in China featuring basketball star Yao Ming has helped to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of shark fin soup.  Of those who saw the ads, the vast majority said they would stop eating the dish.  Other efforts to protect sharks include those of the Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Initiatives which have worked with countries around the world to designate 926,645 square miles of ocean as shark sanctuaries which are off limits to shark fishing of any kind.

In China, where shark fin soup is most popular, the government, in June 2013, banned the soup from all official government functions, helping to bring the issue into the national spotlight.  Though the reliability of the statistic is questionable, the Chinese ministry of commerce reported a 70 percent drop in the consumption of shark fins in China in 2012-2013.  As of January 2014, the price of shark fins had fallen 20-30 percent in major Chinese fishing markets, including Hong Kong and Macau, as the demand for fins decreased. Who would have thought that so many people would care about protecting the most feared predators in the ocean?

How likely are you go be attacked by a shark?  Check out this page from the Shark Attack Files.

Saving the Scallop

Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus). (Photo courtesy of NOAA)
Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus). (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

By Christine Harris

It was once believed that the resources of our vast oceans were inexhaustible, yet after centuries of pressure from a fishing industry looking to satisfy increasing demand with the aid of increasingly more advanced fishing technologies, many fish stocks are now seriously depleted.  While so many fisheries are experiencing a downward trend, off the Eastern coast of the United States, from Maine to North Carolina, the Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) has experienced a remarkable comeback thanks to the collaborative efforts of fishermen, scientists, fishery managers and environmental activists.

By the early 1990s the future of the Atlantic sea scallop fishery looked bleak. It had reached unsustainable levels as a result of years of heavy harvesting.  In fact, sea scallops were in such high demand that it was rumored that some restaurants would fry up circles of dogfish, a small shark, as a substitute because using the real thing was cost prohibitive.

For scallopers fishing off the coast of New England, George’s Bank, a large elevated area of the seafloor stretching from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia provides rich fishing grounds for Atlantic sea scallops and several other species.  Following the steep decline in sea scallop stocks, managers closed three large areas of George’s Bank in 1994 to any type of fishing gear that would target Atlantic sea scallops and groundfish such as cod and flounder.  Both sea scallop and groundfish fisheries rely heavily on a fishing technique called dredging.  Dredging involves using fishing gear to drag along the bottom of the ocean floor and collect a targeted bottom-dwelling species.  The issue with dredging is that it is difficult to target just one species living on the ocean floor and there is often a large bycatch, or catch of other, unintended species.  Thus fishermen seeking out scallops may end up catching a large number of groundfish, and fishermen seeking out groundfish may end up catching a large number of scallops.

Another rule implemented in 1994 was an increase in the size of the rings in the dredges used for scallop fishing from three inches to four inches in order to allow smaller scallops to escape.  Also at this time a “crop rotation” system was implemented for the Atlantic sea scallop fishery in which certain areas of the Mid and North Atlantic were temporarily closed to fishing to allow the scallops to grow and mature.  The combination of these regulations have allowed the Atlantic sea scallop population to grow ten-fold since 1993 and the fishery has been operating at a sustainable level since 2001.  These developments have helped to make the Atlantic sea scallop fishery the most valuable wild scallop fishery in the world.

The Atlantic sea scallop population has been surveyed annually from North Carolina to Massachusetts since 1979 by scientists working for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. These surveys involve dividing the survey area into zones of varying depth and habitat and towing a dredge to document the marine life and conditions in these zones.  Researchers then analyze their catch to determine the average density of animals.  In recent years a new undersea camera known as HabCam has been used to supplement dredging data.  HabCam was developed by scientists as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute working with Cape Cod scallop fishermen and can supply information on scallop densities in a less labor-intensive way.

The Atlantic sea scallop fishery also participates in a research set-aside program.  These programs are unique to federal fisheries in the Northeast and involve fishermen setting aside an amount of their catch to be sold in order to fund research.  The research set-aside program for the Atlantic sea scallop fishery has funded industry-based surveys of access areas, research into bycatch reduction and bycatch avoidance, and research on loggerhead sea turtle populations.

Through detailed annual population surveys and the research set-aside program the future of the Atlantic sea scallop fishery looks promising.  Unfortunately much of the seafood we get at restaurants and markets is not part of a sustainable fishery.  To learn more about how to support sustainable fisheries visit