September 27, 2012 -- It’s a near-innocuous business story. Good news about fishing off Cape May, wherein that port has been named the second most prosperous on the East Coast because rising scallop prices have offset diminishing catches of shellfish.
The report, from the National Marine Fisheries Service, is cited in the Sept. 26 business section of The Star Ledger, which notes that Cape May trails only legendary New Bedford (of whale hunting fame in days of yore) on the East Coast and ranks fifth nationally.
At first, this might seem like a beneficial development. However, what the report fails to indicate is the ominous reason that scallop prices are rising and catches are diminishing.
These details are vitally important for two reasons: First, increased revenues are due to the growing scarcity of scallops, in turn attributable to a complex change in the predatory food chain off the coast of New Jersey; and, second, because my wife tried to order a scallop dish at Poor Henry’s Restaurant in Montville the other night and was told, “we don’t have any scallops today,” by the waitress.
Scallops grow in virtually all coastal areas around the world and they are a prized seafood wherever they are found. They are more complex than their oyster cousins. They can actually swim by rapidly opening and closing their shell, a technique they often practice to escape from predators. And, scallops have primitive eyes, about 100 tiny, light sensitive organs around the outer edges on the mantle of their shells.
The scallop shell serves as the model for the logo of the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation, purveyors of gasoline throughout the United States and around the world.
According to Wikipedia, by far the largest wild scallop fishery in the world is the Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) found off the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. And, according to the Marine Fisheries Service, this wonderful resource is in sad decline.
This decline is not caused by foul waters, or the dumping of nasty chemicals, or even by overfishing of scallops. No, the decline is caused by overfishing of sharks, the ocean’s top predator.
Not the little dog sharks or sand sharks that casual fishermen often hook off the Jersey Shore. The critters that matter are the really fierce sharks: the Tiger Shark, the Great White, the Bull Shark, the Hammerhead, and similar very large creatures at the very top of the maritime food chain.
Of course, these leviathans of the deep have no interest in munching on the lowly scallop. However, one of their preferred victuals is the Cownose ray, a wing-like creature closely related to the Sting ray and the Skates.
The Cownose is a bottom feeder that voraciously scoops up scallops, oysters and clams as it patrols the Eastern Seaboard. Fewer sharks has resulted in a population explosion of these kinds of bottom feeders.
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