Shellfish mother lode caught off Cape May

VILLAS, N.J. (AP) — It might be fortunate nobody has asked Dvora Hart to count the Atlantic sea scallops recently captured by camera images off the New Jersey coast.

Hart, a mathematical biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, knows numbers. She could count that high. The problem: It would take awhile.

“Ten billion is my best guess. It’s probably conservative and it’s very preliminary,” Hart told The Press of Atlantic City.

It’s being called one of the biggest scallop sets ever recorded, eclipsing one in 2003 fishermen harvested for years. The estimate of 10 billion is only for the most concentrated area, scallop grounds called the Elephant Trunk just southeast of Cape May covering more than 1,500 square nautical miles. The set actually extends as far north as Long Island and Block Island and as far south as the Delmarva Peninsula. Hart is still working on the overall numbers.

NOAA’s underwater camera recorded about 4 million images off the Mid-Atlantic coast earlier this year. Each picture is one square meter of ocean floor and Hart was seeing up to 350 scallops per image. Hart, the chief scallop assessment scientist with NOAA, puts that into perspective.

“Normally we’d see one scallop per square meter, which is actually good recruitment. We had a wide range of more than 100 per square meter and several places where they were on the order of 350 per square meter. This is an extreme event. It’s pretty amazing,” said Hart.

The find is great news for the Port of Cape May, where scallops are still the number one catch but recent East Coast harvest cutbacks, about 20 percent averaged over the last two years, hurt the industry.

“Not all the scallops will live, maybe one third will be harvested, but if we can catch 50 million pounds a year for 10 years that will create incredible stability for a fishery managed in a sustainable manner,” said Peter Hughes, who chairs the Sea Scallop Advisory Panel to the National Marine Fisheries.

Most of the scallops are around two years old and still need another couple years to reach full market size. Even with the expected mortality from starfish, crabs and other predators, Hart is predicting the set will generate a minimum of $500 million paid to fishermen, and this is just from the Elephant Truck area. She is also basing it on $10 a pound when scallops have been exceeding that recently as world markets take off.

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