Technicians and interns at the Downeast Institute deploy bottom cages containing juvenile scallops at the Flying Place lobster pound in Beals. The institute did a small-scale test last year to see if scallops could grow well in lobster pounds. Credit: Courtesy of Downeast Institute

A small-scale test indicates that scallops can grow well in old Down East lobster pounds, possibly opening new economic opportunities for the region.

A preliminary experiment by the Downeast Institute found scallops in vacant lobster pounds grow faster and have a higher survival rate when compared with those farmed in the ocean.

It’s too early to go all in on the idea, researchers said, but if further tests show similar results, scallop farming in dormant pounds across Hancock and Washington counties could provide people who make a living off the water a way to diversify as it becomes harder and more expensive to lobster.

The idea was put to the test last year after a similar experiment by the Beals-based institute with oysters showed promise.  Researchers grew scallops in three pounds — two in Beals and one in Steuben — between summer and fall. Their growth was then compared with scallops grown in the ocean in Beals during the same time period.

The test was started with two different sized scallops: 58.5 mm scallops grown in bottom cages and 11.8 grown in mesh lantern nets. The larger scallops in the pounds grew on average nearly twice as large as the ones in the ocean — 15.52 millimeters in the pound versus 8.4 millimeters outside — and had a 15 percent stronger survival rate, said Dianne Tilton, the executive director of the institute.

The smaller scallops in pounds also grew larger, though only by about 1.5 millimeters, but survived at more than twice the rate as those outside the pound.

Tilton stressed that these findings were based on a small data set and no other variables were tested. It’s possible that the difference between being inside and outside the pound were not the factors that caused them to grow faster or survive better. But the findings do indicate that expanding the research is justified.

“We’re going to keep going,” she said. “Scallop aquaculture would be a good opportunity for the Down East region.”

Farming scallops in the Gulf of Maine is still in its infancy and the species presents some unique challenges. Scallops can move, meaning they have to be contained for any successful farming effort. But scallops also like their personal space. Put too many scallops together and they are prone to kill each other with their sharp shells.

“You have to keep them contained, but not too contained,” Tilton said.

Some growers have been testing a Japanese method of growing scallops known as ear-hanging. Farmers drill a small hole near the hinge of the scallop and then attach them to a length of rope that hangs in the water away from any lurking predators on the seafloor. This method keeps scallops from swimming away while still giving them plenty of space. But it’s extremely labor intensive and expensive, and a machine used to quicken the process is rare outside of Japan.

A lobster pound theoretically could help with all these issues. Scallops would be contained but still given space in a controlled environment. Predation by green crabs may also be reduced.

The institute has also been working on getting a sea scallop hatchery up and running, which could provide farmers with the baby scallops. If that and the lobster pound research proves fruitful, it could present an avenue to repurpose a number of lobster pounds in Hancock and Washington counties that remain dormant as the practice of pounding lobsters has fallen out of favor.

“There’s a lot of history of scallop fishing in Down East, Maine,” said Anne Langston Noll, who helped with the research. “This just feels like an opportunity for the communities to diversify and use the infrastructure that they already have.”