Another secret many summer visitors don’t know about is Maine’s scallop season. Like shrimp, it’s a winter thing; the season is (this year) from December 15, 2010 to March 27, 2011. Also like our shrimp fishery, this is a sustainable fishery with tight regulations.
The season is kept short to limit landings and many of the best scallop beds are off-limits to ensure the health of the fishery. This means that Maine’s scallop harvest fluctuates wildly, but that fluctuation does not indicate a free-for-all, boom-or-bust approach. Unlike lobsters, our scallop harvest is much lower than our states to the south. In 2009, total East coast landings topped 25,000 metric tons, of which Maine’s share was just 324. This is a small number compared to the average Maine harvest of over 2000 metric tons in the 1990s, but sustainability is the new top priority. In 2008 a survey was done by the NOAA and the results found that:
The numbers are the highest seen on Georges Bank since 2000 and the second highest since 1979 in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, and help document the effectiveness of a key measure used to manage the commercial fishery, that of rotating access to highly productive sea scallop areas while closing others to allow scallops to grow.
When we buy scallops at the seafood counter, we’re actually buying only the abductor muscle of 3 to 5 year old scallops. This muscle is big so that the scallop can flap it’s shell halves together to jet around the sea floor. So scallops are unique in this ability to move around in a hurry, if only for a limited distance. The scallop is cleaned at sea, and the rest is discarded, since scallops cannot be kept alive like clams. Seafood lovers in Europe however have been known to eat the whole scallop.
Although Maine’s scallop fishery has made great strides to sustainability, one fly remains in the ointment: the dreaded dredge. This is the metal basket towed behind the fishing boat which collects the scallops. It also disturbs the sea floor and occasionally traps sea turtles. Some commercial harvesters dive for scallops, which is much better for the sea floor, and new evolving dredge designs are on the horizon. Overall, the trends for scallop fishing are encouraging. Now science plays a primary role, and so much more is known about what is happening “down there” than in the old days.
Our local Ellsworth roadside seafood man, David Gardener, is selling tubs of scallops for $12.50/ lb. These are not the kind you’d be likely to find in your frozen food section, some are so big you have to slice them in half to cook them at the same rate as the smaller ones. Think small hamburgers. The other difference is these are “dry” scallops. Some processors soak their scallop meats in phosphates to get them to take on water-thereby increasing weight. When possible, buy dry scallops for the best flavor. I’ll save my favorite Maine Scallop recipes for a later post.