PORTLAND, Maine — America's scallop fishing industry will continue to decline in catch into next year due to a decrease in the availability of the oft-pricy shellfish off the East Coast, federal regulators say.
The decline in scallops is happening as prices for the shellfish, one of the most lucrative seafoods in America, has increased amid inflation and fluctuations in catch. Seafood counters that sold scallops for $20 per pound to customers two years ago often sell them for $25 per pound or more now.
U.S. scallop fishers harvested more than 60 million pounds of scallops in 2019, but the catch has declined since, and fishers were projected to harvest about 40 million pounds of scallops in the 2021 fishing year. That number is projected to fall to 34 million pounds in the 2022 fishing year, which started this spring, according to the New England Fishery Management Council.
That total would be the lowest since 2014. The council, which is set to discuss the fishery at a meeting in Portland on Thursday, has said the scallop population in the Atlantic Ocean is healthy, but the mass of scallops has declined from record high levels of several years ago.
The scalloping business is coping with the whims of nature, said Andrew Minkiewicz, a Washington attorney who works with fishing advocacy group Fisheries Survival Fund.
“But there's signs of stuff coming back up and us being able to ramp up in the future,” he said. “That's the natural cycle of things right now.”
The scallop industry is based largely in New England, with many scallops also coming ashore in New Jersey and Virginia. The fishery was worth nearly $500 million at the docks in 2020, making it one of America's most valuable.
But regulators have said the catch has declined in recent years because of a lack of new scallops entering the population. However, the scallops are not overfished, regulators have said.
Scallops have grown in value as catch has decreased. The per-pound value at the docks increased from $9.39 in 2019 to $9.94 in 2020.
In Maine, value spiked by more than 50% to a record of $15.65 per pound last year, state records show. However, the state's catch also declined about a fifth in that time, to about 533,000 pounds.
"It’s always about Mother Nature, too," said Kristan Porter, a scallop fisher based in Cutler, Maine. “You never know year to year.”