Islesboro Central School sophomores Samantha Conover, River Burns, Elura Ward and freshman Ben Watson help count juvenile scallops in Stonington for a Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries project on Wednesday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

STONINGTON — Baby scallops are easy to miss in a pile of muck or a large netted spat bag. At around one to six months old, they are less than 5 millimeters long – dwarfed by a fingernail.

It takes a discerning eye to find the juvenile scallops. But researchers, fishermen, farmers and students have learned how to spot them.

People from each of these groups are collaborating with the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership and Colby College in the second year of a study meant to help identify how many young scallops there are off Maine’s coast, and where they’re living. The work is funded by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The tiny, two-shelled juveniles, or spat, are uniquely important to fishermen who scoop wild scallops from the ocean floor and aquaculture farmers who raise them in contained areas.

Unlike most aquaculture farmers who work with other species, scallop farmers can only grow their bounty from wild spat – the same spat that wild scallop fishermen need to feed the general population.

Baby scallops, also known as “spat,” are displayed on fingertips after being collected by students from Islesboro Central School at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Better understanding the population density of local juvenile scallops will strengthen what could become a complicated relationship between fishermen and farmers who depend on the same creatures to do their work, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries hopes.


“Anytime people’s livelihoods are in the middle of something, bringing people together around that is important. It’s a shared resource,” said Phoebe Jekielek, a marine ecologist and project collaborator.

“The more we can get people to the table, the more we can ask fishermen and farmers to share their ecological knowledge, the better science we’ll do. And the better we’ll be able to make informed decisions about the science that needs to be done and the management that needs to happen to continue to support both of these industries and to find sustainability for both as they grow,” she said.


In the rainy morning on Wednesday, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and Hurricane Island enlisted the help of high schoolers from Islesboro, who took a lobster boat out to the center’s Stonington headquarters to search for those baby scallops.

The groups are gathering data by deploying 14 lines of spat bags along the coast, inshore and offshore – in Blue Hill Bay, Casco Bay, Muscongus Bay and the Milbridge area.

Islesboro Central School sophomores Elura Ward, Samantha Conover and River Burns ride a lobster boat on a field trip to help count scallops for a Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries project in Stonington on Wednesday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“Those are the superhighways delivering larvae from one part of the coast to another,” said Carla Guenther, chief scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. “A really big piece in managing is: Do you have a locally sourced population? Because if you over-harvest, then you’re hoping on help from somewhere else.”


Students from Islesboro Central School land at the Stonington wharf to help count scallops for a Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries project. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The students, freshmen and sophomores at Islesboro Central School, sorted through lines from Jericho Bay. They started by extracting mesh bags from the slimy green fishing net that protected them in the water. They then picked through the mesh bags, known as netrons, scouting for the minuscule scallops among clams, sea slugs and sea squirts that sprayed them in the face, eliciting some laughs.

It’s laborious and wet work. And it requires a lot of bodies to go through the bags.

“You guys are really helping us out,” Jekielek told the high schoolers as they walked through the front door of the center.

The students repeatedly dipped the netrons in water to remove the other species crashing the party and pull out any scallops they found. They went through the water and the muck over and over, eventually bringing gallons of spat-filled muck to a sieve to sort more precisely.

“It’s really hard to separate out the schmutz from the tinies – we just do the best we can,” Jekielek said while teaching the students to sift.

The kids were there, of course, for the learning opportunity.


“They’re getting their hands dirty, seeing a different aspect of science,” said Haley Currie, their science teacher. “And field work in an unideal situation – in the rain and cold.”

But they were hard workers, too.

Phoebe Jekielek, a marine ecologist, shows students from Islesboro Central School how to find scallops collected in the ocean in a netron for the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries project. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

After most took their lunch break, Harper Conover, 16, was the last student standing.

“I want to get the job done,” he said.

Getting their hands in the nets and muck also satisfies one of the goals of the project: community engagement.



Fishermen and farmers have also volunteered on the project, setting the lines, monitoring them, retrieving them, offering their expertise and dreaming up possibilities for the future.

“When you’re looking at a fishery right now that feels like everybody else is making decisions for them, this is the one place where fishermen can contribute to a research project they’ve identified wanting to know the answer to for multiple decades,” Guenther said. “In a sense, as masters of your own destiny and free will, you can understand better the resource and you can participate in managing that resource. I think it gives a lot of guys a little more sense of hope and control.”

Marsden Brewer outside the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. Brewer, who chairs the center’s board of directors, started the first commercial scallop farm in Maine. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Ben Heanssler loves being a part of the process. Heanssler, a wild-scallop fisherman, is tasked with setting and retrieving the lines.

Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries also hopes giving the fishermen and farmers a role in the project can help them learn to work together as the scallop aquaculture industry grows.

“The fishermen have so many more research ideas,” Jekielek said. “They keep coming up with more questions that they’re interested in answering and that are important to them.”

The fishery has experienced significant ups and downs in the last few decades. Last year, wild-caught scallop fishers hauled in 5.5 million pounds of scallops worth $9.31 million.


It’s a stronger moment for the Maine fishery, with scallops being far more valuable than they were in the mid-2000s when the market crashed. But today’s harvests don’t quite compare to the scallop boom Maine saw in the ’90s.

After a collapse in 2005, the state began implementing regulations to rebuild wild stock, including a rotation of areas where scallopers are allowed to harvest each year.

Envisioning a unsustainable future in the scallop fishery, Marsden Brewer started the first commercial scallop farm in Maine for his son. Brewer farms and fishes in Stonington now, alongside serving as board chair for the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.

And Brewer often has to explain to wary fishermen that farmers help the population by moving scallop larvae from suffocating in the mud.

“It’s not that much of an issue once they understand,” Brewer said.

And he believes that the project can bridge that gap by bringing scallops’ two kinds of harvesters together.

“The mission is to be able to fish forever,” he said.

Anyone working with scallops can get behind that.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.