New 'Seahorse' sees scallops in new way

Associated Press Modified: September 1, 2012 at 3:31 pm •  Published: September 1, 2012
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BOSTON (AP) — A new underwater explorer hit the seas this summer, armed with cameras, strobes and sonar and charged with being a protector of sorts to a half-billion dollar resource — the Atlantic scallop catch.

The stainless steel Seahorse, which gets its nickname from its s-shaped silhouette, traces its roots to a conversation a decade ago between a biologist and a fisherman who was seeking a better way to track the scallop population.

This summer, the instrument was towed over miles of seafloor, from Virginia to Cape Cod, taking millions of images and capturing details about marine life and the ocean floor that stretched beyond just the number of scallops.

The Seahorse revealed previously unseen ocean topography, predators stalking prey, and even the furrows left where fishing gear was pulled along the bottom.

Marine scientists just don't get this kind of look into the darkness on the ocean floor, said Dvora Hart, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mathematical biologist who leads the federal sea scallop assessment.

"We've been kind of blind before having this type of information," Hart said.

The Seahorse is the fourth version of HabCam, an instrument originally created to better count scallops. Former scalloper Richard Taylor had seen scallop industry's worst times around 1994, when the prime fishing areas were closed to protect depleted groundfish and scallop populations.

But by 1996, scientists discovered that areas that had been shut down to protect certain fish species were rich with scallops. The industry has been thriving since the late 1990s, after regulators installed a plan to cut down fishing days and rotate fishing between different areas, to allow the stock to replenish in untouched regions.

Last year, the Atlantic sea scallop catch was worth $580 million in revenues, and the industry's best-known port of New Bedford has been the nation's top fishing revenue port for 11 years running.

Back around 2002, Taylor knew things were going well, but also knew how quickly they can go bad. He was particularly concerned about the inefficiency of the primary method for sampling scallops for use in population estimates — using a dredge to scoop them up. A dredge misses varying percentages of the scallops it goes over, and Taylor worried the flawed information could eventually lead to the overfishing or underfishing that can drag down the resource and the fishermen.

Taylor talked with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist Scott Gallager, whom he had worked with on scallop issues. "We need a better tool," he told Gallager.

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