LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's summertime in New England, and that means along the coast, vacationers are gobbling up local seafood: fried fish-sandwiches, steamed mussels, raw oysters. In recent years, more of this seafood is farmed instead of caught. And up in Maine, scientists and fishermen are learning how to farm more types of fish.
The next big thing in shellfish could be farmed sea scallops. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: If you don't love scallops, you probably just haven't had one that's cooked properly, that is pan fried with some garlic and butter and herbs. They are very tasty. But like a lot of other seafood, in many places they've been over-fished.
Out on the water off Stonington, Maine, Marsden Brewer is motoring his lobster boat through the crowded fishing harbor. Today, just about all the boats here are lobster boats. But 30 years ago, Brewer says it was a different story.
MARSDEN BREWER: Yeah, you see all the boats and stuff?
BREWER: Come November 1st, most of them would all be rigged up for scalloping.
ARNOLD: Oh really?
BREWER: There was that many scallops in shore here.
ARNOLD: And now?
BREWER: Now, there's maybe four boats that go.
ARNOLD: And there used to be - what, a hundred or something, or...?
BREWER: It's a couple hundred.
ARNOLD: And it's just they're all fished out?
BREWER: Yep. Yep. That's what it amounts to. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Scallop numbers remain well below historical levels in areas closer to shore. In offshore fishing grounds such as Georges Bank, however, regulations begun in the late 1990s have helped rebuild a healthy scallop fishery.]
ARNOLD: Brewer would like to see more of these boats return to scalloping. But this time by farming scallops. That could make better business and environmental sense. Outside the harbor, Brewer motors over to one of his green and orange lobster buoys. So this looks like a lobster buoy, but it's actually attached to a scallop pen or something, or a cage?
BREWER: Yeah, you know, the colors let everyone know it's me.
ARNOLD: Brewer grabs the buoy and uses the winch on his lobster boat to haul up an experiment: two big wire mesh cages that he's farming sea scallops in. On board today, Brewer's got a scientist who's helping with this aquaculture experiment. Dana Morse is with the Maine SeaGrant Program and University of Maine Cooperative Extension, which works with farmers and fishermen.
DANA MORSE: Oh, I'm psyched here. We stocked them a couple of weeks ago, and so this is my first look since.
BREWER: Oh yeah, they're coming right up.
ARNOLD: Pretty soon, out of the clear, cold Maine water the scallop-farming cages rise up from the bottom 50 feet below, and the two men lift them onto the deck of the boat. The crates are filled with thousands of small baby scallops.
MORSE: So happy little scallops, ooh, they grew.
BREWER: I just put a few in there.
ARNOLD: The cages are about four feet wide and several feet high. And inside, stacks of mesh-lined trays hold and protect the scallops, which at this stage are each a little smaller than a dime.
MORSE: Oh, look, they're kind of - they move around a little bit, huh?
MORSE: They swim like crazy, too. Do you want to take them out, take a look, or...
ARNOLD: Scallops are not like mussels that just sit there stuck to a rock. That's kind of boring. These little guys squeeze water out of their shells to propel them away from starfish or other predators. That's why you have to farm them in cages. Otherwise, they'd just swim away. They also have rows of deep blue eyes in between their shells.
MORSE: Little sea scallops, they're beautiful little beasts, particularly when they're young. You get all these zig-zag, mottled, stripy colors in there.
ARNOLD: And scallops fetch a nice price at the dock. Lately, the price of lobster has plummeted, and that's been hurting fishermen like Brewer all over Maine. So, the idea here is to give them another way to make money. Instead of just pulling up lobster traps, one day they could be pulling up crates or cages full of farmed scallops
BREWER: Just the future of the community is what it amounts to. You know, I've been involved most all the fisheries over the course of my life, and this is - lobster's about the only one left.
ARNOLD: People have tried to farm sea scallops in the U.S. before, but Dana Morse says it hasn't worked very well. A big problem seems to be that the little larval scallops take a long time to grow, and they don't do very well in a hatchery. But a few years ago, Morse went with a delegation to Japan. And it turns out that the Japanese have discovered the real secret to farming sea scallops.
MORSE: The question is how do you get your seed. And the Japanese technique turned out to be very applicable to the species of scallop that we have here, Plakopectin Magilanikus.
ARNOLD: Did you get that? I bet you can't say Plakopectin Magilanikus three times fast. But that doesn't really matter. The point is that they figured out how to catch the tiny baby scallops out in the ocean, and this approach is actually very low tech. You just use waded up netting, which is sort of like a bunch of onion bags you get when you buy a bag of onions at the supermarket. If you suspend that in the ocean in the right spot, you'll get thousands of baby scallops that just float in naturally and start growing in there.
And then after a while, they get big enough to be transferred into the bigger cages. Morse and Brewer toss their scallop cages back into the water before they get too warm. Up here, by the way they are scallops, not scallops.
MORSE: Say when.
ARNOLD: Aquaculture experiments like this are not without their occasional mishaps. Brewer's wife, Donna, has come along to help record the size of the shells at this point. There's also a radio reporter stumbling around. And with so many people on board, somebody kicks a water pipe off the bottom of a big lobster tank, and sea water starts pouring into the boat.
DONNA BREWER: Did I do that?
ARNOLD: That reminds me of when I tried to fix my own sink one time.
ARNOLD: But probably the biggest potential snafu in this effort will be getting regulatory approval. Morse and Brewer think they have the technique coming together pretty well. But before anyone can farm scallops commercially, state and federal authorities will have to give it the OK and come up with a set of regulations. Chris Arnold, NPR News.