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A sea change in fishing?

By David Warsh, 7/10/2001

What's behind the scallop turnaround?

New Bedford scallopers are having a banner year - the best since 1964, as the Globe's Beth Daley reported last month. Market prices of the tasty ocean shellfish are falling, but fishermens' incomes are up sharply, thanks to bountiful takings from areas of Georges Bank.

Just another episode in a familiar boom-bust cycle of overfishing?

Certainly some knowledgeable people think so. The Conservation Law Foundation, which forced the closing of large portions of the offshore fishing grounds in 1994, again has sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, charging that the government is mishandling its plan for the reopening of the fishing grounds.

But at a luncheon in New Bedford yesterday, political leaders, scallopers, and business leaders gathered to honor the institution responsible more than any other for this year's bounty: a group of television camera-toting investigators from the intercampus School for Marine Science and Technology of the University of of Massachusetts.

In fact, the entry of government-sponsored university-based science promises to further alter the dynamics of one of humankind's oldest sorrows - the ''tragedy of the commons,'' whereby individuals pursuing their own self-interests inevitably overuse natural resources, whether the common property in question is fish stocks, farmland, pasture, water, or the atmosphere.

Governments have learned that a strong start on solving the problem can be made by assigning property rights: establishing limits, prescribing rules, relying on price signals to do the rest. But ocean fishing poses special problems, because fish populations are hard to locate and gauge, and their dynamics in most cases are still relatively little understood.

It was an ingenious experiment designed by UMass-Dartmouth professor Kevin Stokesbury - dragging television cameras back and forth across the bottom of an area closed to fishing - that last year conclusively demonstrated that scallops had flourished in the years since nearly 5,000 square miles of prime fishing grounds were closed.

The idea behind the moratorium had been to prevent the continued overharvesting of fish, cod in particular. But the shellfish thrived, thanks partly to a dearth of disruptive storms. The television survey showed that in certain areas scallops had grown so large and close together that some may have been dying from congestion.

Those results enabled scallopers to appeal more strongly to political authorities in Washington for relief. (US Senator Edward M. Kennedy was the featured speaker at yesterday's event.) About 280 vessels are thought to make scalloping their principal business. Their home ports range from Gloucester to North Carolina. But the Southeastern Massachusetts cities of New Bedford and Fairhaven are the center of the industry. And it was state Senator Mark C. Montigny and state representatives John F. Quinn and William M. Straus who over the years persuaded the Legislature to fund the School for Marine Science and Technology, and to hire a world-class scientist, Brian Rothschild, as its director.

With about 25 scientists coming and going, the center has some way to go before it rivals great centers of ocean learning such as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Washington, and the Florida universities. But as the scallop story shows, it doesn't need to be the fanciest program to have a profound influence.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell has been arguing for years that technology-based land-grant universities can be key players in regional development. The extension of its model to the fishing industry is especially welcome. This time, the science seems to have been on the fisherman's side. But the entry of a set of dispassionate referees who also may serve as an extension service, teaching the rules of good husbandry to the fishing fleet, is good news for environmentalists as well.

David Warsh can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 7/10/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.