Marine scientists guide scallop boats away from at-risk flounder

Goal is to protect the dwindling yellowtail flounder population without hurting the scallop fishermen.

UMass Dartmouth scientists successfully implemented a strategy to protect the dwindling yellowtail flounder population without burdening the scallopers. 

Scallops, one of the best-managed fisheries in the U.S., produce about $400 million per year at dock-side prices along the East Coast, including $200 million in New Bedford. Several times over the past five years, however, scallopers from New Bedford and other ports were forced to prematurely halt their pursuit of scallops because they exceeded their allocation of yellowtail flounder, a species that is over-fished. This created an economic hardship for hundreds of families. 

Last year, for example, the catch of scallops was reduced by more than 2 million pounds valued at $16 million at the dock because fishing grounds were closed early due to yellowtail flounder catch limits.  Many of the large scallops left on the sea floor then died and the habitat for new scallops to thrive was reduced. 

"We were overwhelmed with the level of participation from the fleet and very pleased that the fishermen used the information to actively avoid yellowtail bycatch," said Cate O'Keefe, an SMAST PhD student and the director of the project. "This is an economic and conservation success.'' 

This year, the School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at UMass Dartmouth and the SMAST Fishermen's Steering Committee worked to increase the scallop catch and deliver more product to consumers while reducing the yellowtail flounder catch. A pilot program was developed in the Nantucket Lightship Area to avoid catching yellowtail flounder. 

SMAST scientists produced maps showing the densities of scallops and flounder by small area within the Nantucket Lightship Area, which was used by fishermen to avoid flounder and catch scallops. Fishermen and SMAST researchers also developed a system for fishermen to report their catches of yellowtail flounder by area on a daily basis. SMAST scientists then analyzed the data in reference to their density maps and sent a daily advisory to fishermen that identified areas that were safe to fish for scallops and areas to avoid yellowtail. 

More than 60 scallop vessels participated in the daily reporting program. 

Fishermen voluntarily avoided yellowtail "hot spots" while pursuing their quota for scallops. For the first time in several years, the full allotment of scallops will be caught in an access area scallop fishery, while the yellowtail flounder catch was only 25 percent of the catch limit for this overfished species. Most of the scallops caught were large scallops, which are preferred by consumers and yield high prices to fishermen. 

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