Atlantic Sea Scallop

Atlantic Sea Scallop

Placopecten magellanicus


    Sea scallop,
    Giant scallop


    U.S. wild-caught from Maine to North Carolina



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Atlantic Sea Scallop

You can tell how old a scallop is by counting the number of annuli (rings) on their shells (kind of like counting tree rings on a stump).


In the early 1990s, the U.S. fishery for Atlantic sea scallops in the northeastern U.S. was not sustainable – the population was near record lows and fishing was at a record high. Today, the Atlantic sea scallop population is near record highs and the fishery operates at sustainable levels. This fishery is now not only one of our most valuable fisheries but also the most valuable wild scallop fishery in the world. The collaborative work of scallop fishermen, scientists, fishery managers, and environmentalists is responsible for this incredible turnaround.

In 1994, managers closed three large areas on Georges Bank to any gear that could be used to target groundfish or scallops to allow both groundfish and scallop populations to recover. They also altered other fisheries regulations, gradually increasing the minimum dredge ring size from 3 inches to 4 inches, allowing small scallops to escape and grow to larger sizes before being caught. They put limits on crew size and days that each vessel could fish to reduce fishing pressure on scallops. Managers implemented a sort of crop rotation for the scallop fishery – they defined management areas around concentrations of sea scallops on Georges Bank and off the Mid-Atlantic states that are closed to enable young scallops to grow undisturbed and reproduce, and then reopened when ready to harvest. This crop rotation combined with other key management measures allowed the scallop population to increase ten-fold since its low point in 1993. Adaptive, science-based fisheries management has maintained the sea scallop resource at sustainable levels since 2001.

Looking Ahead

As of May 1, 2013, scallop vessels in the Mid-Atlantic must use a Turtle Deflector Dredge (PDF) in places and times where sea turtles occur on scallop grounds. The Turtle Deflector Dredge excludes sea turtles from being caught in the dredge and prevents serious injuries to the turtles.



Atlantic sea scallops are found in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Adult scallops live close together in groups called “beds” on sandy or gravelly parts of ocean floor generally at depths of about 100 to 300 feet on Georges Bank and in the Mid-Atlantic. Sea scallops can be found in shallower waters in Maine and Canada.



Sea scallops can live up to 20 years or more. They grow quickly for the first few years of their life. The largest scallop ever seen was about 9 inches in shell height, but they typically don’t grow larger than 6 inches. Sea scallops can reproduce by age 2 but don’t produce many eggs or sperm until they are about 4 years old. They are very fertile - a female sea scallop can produce as hundreds of millions of eggs per year. In fact, because of this, scallops may respond more rapidly to management actions than species that reproduce slowly and in small numbers. Sea scallops usually spawn in late summer or early fall. They also may spawn in the spring, especially in the Mid-Atlantic Bight. After hatching, scallop larvae remain in the water column for four to six weeks before settling on the ocean floor.

Sea scallops feed by filtering phytoplankton or other small organisms out of the water column, which can actually help to improve water quality by removing suspended materials from the water column. Many kinds of pelagic fish and invertebrates eat scallop larvae. Cod, wolffish, eel pout, flounder, crabs, lobster, sea turtles, and sea stars feed on juvenile and adult scallops.

Using its adductor muscle to snap its top and bottom shells open and shut, a sea scallop can propel itself through the water. This ability helps them to escape predators such as sea stars that other bivalves like mussels, clams, and oysters can’t avoid. (The adductor muscle is the sweetly flavored part of the scallop known as the scallop “meat” typically eaten by Americans. Europeans and Asians, in contrast, often eat whole or “roe-on” scallop. Roe-on sea scallops from Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine must be tested for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) before being consumed; scallop meats from any area and Mid-Atlantic roe-on scallops are always free of PSP. )



Scallops are bivalves like clams and oysters, meaning they have two shells. The shells are held together by the adductor muscle (the part of the scallop we typically eat). Sea scallops have a saucer shaped shell with “scalloped”, or fluted, edges. The upper shell is usually reddish-pink or brown in color; the lower shell is white or cream. A small percentage (5-10 percent) of sea scallops are “albinos”, with white upper and lower shells. Sea scallop shells are smooth and lack the prominent ribbing that is characteristic of most other scallop shells. It is thought that the sea scallops’ smooth shell is an adaptation to allow it to swim faster and farther.



Scientists from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center have surveyed the Atlantic sea scallop population off the Northeastern coast of the U.S. between North Carolina and Massachusetts every year since 1979. They divide the survey area into zones of various depths and habitat then tow a dredge and camera to randomly sample and document the marine life and other conditions in these zones. After each tow, they sort, count, and measure their catch. Dredge catches provide relative indices of the average density of animals along with some information about bottom type and habitat.

Scientists have recently started using a new undersea camera called the “HabCamdisclaimer in scallop surveys to supplement the dredge data. The HabCam (short for Habitat Mapping Camera System) was developed by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution working with Cape Cod scallop fishermen. Images from the HabCam supply absolute densities of scallops and other species, are less labor intensive in terms of crew, and provide much more information about the bottom habitat, all in near-real time. Using the two methods provides a more complete picture of the scallop population and its habitat.

Scientists use information from these surveys along with data from other surveys and the commercial fishery to estimate abundance (biomass) and assess the health of the population and the sustainability of the fishery.



In 2009, scientists estimated scallop abundance, or biomass, to be 129,700 metric tons meats, above the target biomass level of 125,000 metric tons meats.



Under the Scallop Research Set-Aside Program, 1.25 million pounds (567 metric tons) of the allowed scallop harvest is set aside each year to fund scallop and habitat research and surveys to provide better information for future management decisions. This is not a federally-funded program – participating scallop vessels fund research through the scallops they harvest. Projects conducted include gear research to minimize bycatch of finfish, sea turtles and small scallops, surveys of rotational access areas and other areas, studies of scallop biology, and development of survey technologies.


Harvesting Sea Scallop

U.S. commercial fishermen harvest sea scallops year round, primarily using New Bedford scallop dredges that catch scallops in a similar way as rakes collect leaves. A small number of fishermen use otter trawls, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic. Divers and Digby dredges are sometimes used in near-shore areas in the Gulf of Maine.

The bottom fishing gears used to harvest scallops (dredges and trawls) can remove some bottom habitat-forming organisms such as tubeworms and sponges. Managers have implemented a variety of measures to protect habitat from potential impacts of fishing gear:

  • Several areas are closed year round to harvesting scallops to protect sensitive habitat in these areas.
  • Managers have implemented a “Rotational Area Management” program which restricts where and when scallop vessels can fish, benefitting both habitat and scallop populations.
  • Fishermen use 4-inch rings on their scallop dredges that increase the dredges’ efficiency in catching larger scallops and allow small scallops and other small marine life to return to the sea floor by passing through the dredge rings.The 4-inch rings reduce the amount of time dredges contact the bottom.
  • 1.25 million pounds (567 metric tons) of the allowed scallop harvest is set aside each year to fund scallop and habitat research and surveys to provide better information for future management decisions.

Finfish (such as yellowtail flounder, skates, and monkfish), sea turtles, and undersized scallops can be incidentally caught in the scallop fishery. Managers seasonally prohibit fishing in areas where species like yellowtail flounder and sea turtles congregate, reducing catch of these untargeted species. Scallop fishermen receive an annual allocation of yellowtail flounder that they can catch. If the yellowtail catch is exceeded, managers will close areas where high catches of yellowtail have historically occurred for a portion of the next fishing year. They also restrict the number of fishing trips vessels with limited access permits can take in certain Mid-Atlantic areas to minimize risk to sea turtles, and as of May 1, 2013, scallop vessels in the Mid-Atlantic must use a Turtle Deflector Dredge (PDF) in the places and times where sea turtles occur on scallop grounds. (The Turtle Deflector Dredge excludes sea turtles from being caught in the dredge and prevents serious injuries to the turtles.) Scallop dredges must have a 10" mesh "twine-top" designed to allow fish to escape. Research and experimentation with different techniques and gears and education efforts have also helped reduce bycatch. NOAA Fisheries, the New England Fishery Management Council, and the fishing industry continue to collaborate to redesign scallop dredges to reduce flounder bycatch and minimize injuries and capture of sea turtles.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries and the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils

Current Management: Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan

Managers determine a total allowable catch for the scallop fishery based of estimates of the scallop population. They allocate this catch amount to different groups of the fishery, depending on their permit type and historical catch, through “days-at-sea” and number of trips to special access areas.

Other management measures include:

  • Gear restrictions to minimize bycatch and impacts on habitat (see Harvesting scallops)
  • Limits on crew size (no more than a 7 man crew on open area trips)
  • Areas closed to scallop dredging to allow young scallops to grow large and reproduce and to reduce bycatch of nontargeted species.
  • Vessels harvesting scallops must also use vessel monitoring systems (a satellite communications system used to monitor fishing activities).

There is a sea scallop fishery in the Gulf of Maine that operates primarily in state waters. This fishery is managed by the state of Maine through gear and seasonal restrictions and rotational closures. Canadian fishermen also harvest Atlantic sea scallops in their waters from Georges Bank to Newfoundland. This fishery is managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. disclaimer


Annual Harvest

The U.S. sea scallop fishery now supports the largest harvests in its history. Harvests averaged about 24,000 metric tons meats from 2003 to 2010, about twice their long-term average. The principal U.S. commercial fisheries for sea scallop are in the Mid-Atlantic (from Virginia to Long Island, New York) and on Georges Bank and neighboring areas, such as the Great South Channel and Nantucket Shoals. There is also a small, primarily inshore fishery for sea scallops in the Gulf of Maine.



The U.S. sea scallop fishery is extremely important to our economy and is the largest wild scallop fishery in the world. In 2010, U.S. fishermen harvested 57 million pounds of sea scallop meats worth over $449 million to the fishermen. Scallop vessels from Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey are responsible for the majority of the U.S. harvest.



Atlantic sea scallops come from U.S. and Canadian fisheries. Sea scallops are harvested for their adductor muscle (“meat”), the muscle that holds their shells together. Scallops are usually shucked at sea and kept on ice or frozen aboard the fishing vessel. “Dry” scallops are untreated; “wet” scallops are treated with chemical additives to increase their water content. Dry scallops are the best way to go – if wet scallops are treated too much, they’ll be soft and opaque and shed water and weight quickly.

Sea scallops have a sweet, rich taste that can be mild or briny. Raw scallops are shiny, creamy white, sometimes with an orange or pinkish tint. An orange or pink color is a natural variation that does not affect taste or quality. High quality scallops have an ivory translucence and should keep their shape. Cooked scallops are opaque white with a firm, lean texture. (From Seafood Business, 2005) disclaimer






Scallops are a good low-fat source of protein and are high in selenium and B vitamins.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g
Calories 88
Protein 16.7 g
Fat, total 0.76 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.079 g
Carbohydrate 2.36 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 33 mg
Selenium 22.2 mcg
Sodium 161 mg

Atlantic sea scallop table of nutrition