By Togue Brawn
Maine’s scallop season has experienced record prices this year. But are the scallops caught off our shore really any different than those from other areas? You bet they are, and here’s why.
Roughly 95 percent of US sea scallops come from the Federal fishery, where large boats generally fish offshore for six days or more at a time. As scallops are caught they’re placed in cloth bags and buried in ice. Over the course of the trip the ice melts and is absorbed by the scallops. When these scallops are “fresh off the boat,” some of them are more than a week old and most of them have a moisture content a few points higher than when they were plucked from the ocean. Since scallops are sold by weight, this means consumers pay more money for less scallop.
Here in Maine, we do things very differently. Our fishermen must stay within state waters (which extend out to three miles) and have strict limits on what they can catch: 10 gallons (90 pounds) in Cobscook Bay and 15 gallons (135 pounds) elsewhere. That means their trips last hours, not days. Scallops are stored in five-gallon buckets, and because the season runs from December to April, Mother Nature provides the cooling. Sometimes near the end of the season the catch will be iced, but that ice is applied by burying the buckets in ice, and since the buckets are impermeable, no fresh water can leak in.
Currently our state fishery produces roughly 2 percent of US sea scallops. That might not sound like much, but it’s double what it used to be. Our fishery has experienced a great deal of growth in recent years. Back in 2009 the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) began a complete restructuring of their scallop management program. Entry to the fishery was limited (meaning no new licenses), the season was cut in half, daily limits were introduced and roughly 20 percent of the coast was closed so the resource could rebuild. Full disclosure: I worked for DMR at the time and I’m the one that spearheaded these changes, so I’m not exactly unbiased. But while some fishermen complain these changes led to more participants, few dispute that they helped the resource grow. Thankfully, DMR is still putting a great deal of effort into continuing this rebuilding process, even though they struggle with the fact that a larger resource attracts more fishermen, which then creates a need for more restrictions (it’s a tough, thankless job, but they’re doing it well).
This year our Maine fishermen are experiencing record prices. That’s largely because of factors outside Maine (limited supply from other areas), but it may also be influenced by the fact that little by little, people around the country are starting to realize Maine scallops are special (check out this article). Scallops develop different flavors and textures depending on where they live, just like oysters. But most people don’t know that, because they’ve only experienced waterlogged flavor-diluted scallops from the offshore fishery. Maine waters produce the best oysters on the East Coast, and we also produce the tastiest scallops. And if you buy your scallops directly from the fisherman (ALWAYS the best way) or from a reputable dealer, they stay that way. My company Downeast Dayboat ships fresh Maine scallops across the country within 24 hours of harvest, and it’s great to get e-mails from my customers explaining which varietals they like best. It’s also fun to hear them tell me, “I had NO IDEA scallops could taste this good.”
Maine produces the best scallops on the planet, and we’ve been keeping it a secret for far too long. Our season will end soon, so be sure to fill your freezer – a frozen Maine scallop will always be better than a “fresh” grocery store scallop. Maine people should be eating Maine scallops, and we should do it all year!
To find local scallops, go to the Vegetable Corner right here in Harpswell or ask your local fish market (Cantrell’s in Topsham, Gurnet Trading on Rt. 24 in Brunswick or Harbor Fish in Portland) or order them from Downeast Dayboat.
Togue Brawn is a former fisheries manager, current scallop evangelist and owner of Downeast Dayboat: www.downeastdayboat.com.