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For many Northeast seafood lovers, November is one of the best times of year because it’s the start of bay scallop season! Bay scallops are the jewels of the sea – super sweet and buttery, especially when they are freshly shucked and eaten raw. Sea candy, we like to call them.
But if you’ve been looking forward to the season like us, you’ve probably noticed that it has been disappointing, especially bay scallops from Massachusetts. Prices are high and retail markets are selling previously frozen to keep up with demand. What’s driving this season’s limited production? And is there a way to anticipate supply for next fall?
For basic info about bay scallops, read The Skinny on Bay Scallops here.
Bay scallop seed affected by last winter
Last winter was one for the books. Massachusetts received a record amount of snow and cold weather. This had significant repercussions for many shellfish farms and fisheries, bay scallops included. It takes two years for bay scallops to reach adulthood before they can be harvested. Unfortunately, the harsh winter conditions wiped out much of the juvenile scallops that would have been adults and ready for harvest this past fall.
Town regulations and area closures
Bay scallop fisheries are typically open from November 1 to March 31 of each year to protect the scallops and give them time to repopulate in the summer. Since bay scallops have a two-year life span, it’s hard to overfish them as long as fishermen are harvesting adult scallops. But since there aren’t many adults in the water as noted above, shellfish constables and town regulators have decided to close areas to protect the seed. On Martha’s Vineyard, these closures have upset commercial fishermen who rely on scalloping for a living, but regulators argue that harvesting, typically by dredging, disturbs the brood stock and it’s hard to regulate fishing of under-sized scallops.
Poor water quality and eelgrass loss impacting scallop growth and recovery
Massachusetts scallop fisheries have seen a widespread decline since the mid 1980s. Many scientists point to poor water quality as the primary culprit. Water pollution from increased tourism, coastal housing developments, and fertilizer runoff adds more nitrogen to the water, which accelerates algae growth. As algae density increases, water clarity decreases. This affects the amount of sunlight that can penetrate the water to reach the eelgrass meadows, the bay scallop’s habitat.
Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between eelgrass density and scallop survival. Scallops like to attach to the upper eelgrass canopies to stay away from their benthic predators, and they have access to more particulate food collected by the eelgrass blades. As eelgrass further decline on the Vineyard and Nantucket, bay scallops will continue to struggle due to habitat loss.
On Nantucket, the harbor used to be one of the main scallop fisheries on the island. Unfortunately, the geography of the harbor is not very conducive to tidal change. This exasperates the water quality issue and provides less food for the scallops to feed. Boat traffic and mooring field maintenance also disturbs the seed and their habitat. Now, much of the Nantucket bay scallop volume has been coming from the west end of the island instead of the harbor.
Less product around, less fishermen around
With less adult scallops around to fish, fishermen are looking for other sources of income instead. According to Jeff from Salty Balls, there are typically lots of fishermen up until Christmas. At the start of the season, there were around a hundred boats. But after seeing disappointing catches over the first few weeks, fishermen have moved on to find jobs on the island or fish for something else. If there's no one fishing, it doesn't really matter whether there are any adult scallops still in the water.
What will supply look like moving forward?
As we enter the coldest months of winter 2016 (it was -6º F windchill two days ago...), bay scallops will become more and more limited than they already are. Fishermen cannot or are not allowed to fish if there is bad weather, strong winds, or cold temperatures. When the air temperature is 28º F or below, the scallops will freeze once out of the water. Expect product to be extremely tight or non-existent until the season closes.
And as for the next season in November 2016... Well, we wish we had better news to tell you, but there's really no way of knowing. "There may be a good amount of seed in the water [ready] for next fall, but it's hard to tell what will happen after winter. There won't be any supply indication until the [fishermen] start poking around in November," says Jeff from the Net Result Fish Market.
So what can you do if you're desperate for bay scallops? One option is to look for bay scallops from other regions like Long Island and Nova Scotia or try to source them previously frozen. Of course, fresh is always best, but frozen bay scallops thawed correctly can work well too. Look to change up your menu with items like Maine dayboat sea scallops that are in season right now through April. They're definitely not bay scallops, but they're equally beautiful and tasty!
Special thanks to Jeff from Salty Balls and Jeff from Net Result Fish Market for contributing to the research of this piece. Photos from nantucketcommunity.org.
***No time to read the whole thing? No problem, scroll to the bottom for a summary of the key points.***
It's November... And for those of us in the Massachusetts shellfish industry, that means the start of bay scallop season! Revered as the gems of the ocean, bay scallops are sweet, succulent scallops also known for their beautiful shells. Since they're a seasonal item, now is the time to be focusing on these beauties. Today, we're going to share all our bay scallop knowledge here, and after reading this, you'll be an instant bay scallop guru.
What are bay scallops and where are they from?
There are two types of bay scallops in eastern North America: the northern bay scallop (Argopecten irradians irradians), found along the coasts of Massachusetts through Long Island, New York; and the southern bay scallop (Argopecten irradians concentricus), found in New Jersey through North Carolina. Most bay scallop fisheries are now out of Massachusetts, namely Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, due to the larger habitats of eelgrass that support scallop spawning and provide protection from predators.
THE BASIC BIOLOGY OF BAY SCALLOPS
- Bay scallops live for 18-30 months -- there are only two generations alive at any time.
- They reach full size by the next fall. An adult northern scallop averages 2.4" in length, 2.5" in width, and weighs in around 11 grams.
- An adult scallop is defined by its "growth line," a thickened edge of shell that forms when the scallop starts to grow again during the spring. Scallops stop growing during the winter.
- Like other bivalves, bay scallops spawn in warmer months. Females can release a few million eggs in one season.
- Bay scallops ARE NOT the same species as sea scallops. They are related and belong in the same shellfish family, but differ in size, habitat, and life years.
How are they harvested?
Most bay scallops on the market are wild. We have seen some cultivated product, but their numbers are no match for the wild fisheries that land hundreds of pounds a day. The primary method of harvesting is dragging by scallop dredge. There are specific regulations on dredges, i.e. size and weight, because dragging can disturb or destroy eelgrass and ocean bottom habitats, which help sustain scallop populations. Other fishing methods include raking or dip-netting in shallower waters.
Scalloping in Massachusetts is heavily regulated, but with good cause. These regulations were developed to help fishermen earn a living wage by preventing overfishing and low market prices. Many of these rules still apply today and are the main reasons why bay scallops are a seasonal product.
- In Massachusetts, commercial bay scallop season is open October 1 through March 31. Additionally, every town has its own season and regulations including harvest limits and times. Below are the regulations for two of the largest production areas:
- Martha's Vineyard
- Season open (depending on town): Oct. 27 / Nov. 3 / Dec. 1 - Mar. 31
- Harvest limit: 3 level bushels per license per day (up to 2 licensees per boat)
- Monday - Friday, 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. If bad weather, can harvest on the following Saturday. Never on Sunday.
- Season open: Nov. 1 - Mar. 31
- Harvest limit: 5 level bushels per license per day (up to 2 licensees per boat)
- Monday - Friday, 6:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. If Christmas is on a weekday, can harvest on the Saturday of that week.
- Martha's Vineyard
- Supply of bay scallops is highly weather dependent. Fishermen cannot and sometimes are not allowed to harvest when there is bad weather, including strong winds, rain, and even cold temperatures. If the air is too cold, the scallops die of frostbite once out of water.
how to buy quality bay scallops
Bay scallops don't stay alive for long in-shell (one to two days max out of water), so most fishermen shuck them for their meats the day of harvest to keep the meats fresh. For buyers, it may mean a higher price, but it also means more meat per pound. Who wants to be paying for shells?
When checking for quality, Ben says, "Bay scallops should be almost translucent and glossy on the outside, not chalky or yellowing. They should be clean, no grit, and should smell sweet. The best way to tell is just to taste them raw. It's a sure way to know." When it relates to size, there should be about 50-70 pieces per pound. Also ask how they were processed and check that there's not a lot of liquid. Wet vs. dry processing can make a huge difference in weight -- wet bay scallops are dipped in a phosphate solution to keep them fresh, but makes them absorb more liquid.
how to cook
There are many ways to prepare bay scallops! But the best ways are to keep them simple because they already have so much flavor and tenderness. Eating them raw in ceviches, crudo, or sushi, giving them a quick pan sear, grill or roast, these are all popular preparation methods. For recipe ideas, see our summary below.
So in summary...
- Northern bay scallops are most common -- you will find the greatest supply sourced from Massachusetts, especially Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Production is more limited from the Cape due to environmental impacts like brown tides. All bay scallops from MA, regardless of area, are the SAME species. They are not, however, the same as sea scallops.
- BAY SCALLOPS ARE SEASONAL AND WEATHER DEPENDENT -- harvest season in most towns open November 3 or later through March 31. Fishermen are limited with their catch, can only harvest Monday through Friday, and can be deterred by weather. Therefore, DO NOT expect consistent supply.
- Check quality and size of bay scallops by
- Smelling and tasting them raw
- Looking for translucent, shiny gloss
- Very little liquid
- Average 50-70 pieces / lb
- Click on the links below for a few recipe ideas for bay scallops
- And in case you're ever on Jeopardy, here's a fun fact -- Scallops can swim up to a distance of 10 feet in a single swim. They swim in a zig-zag line by squirting water through their "ears" initiated by opening and closing their valves. When they reach the water surface, they sink to the bottom in a new location with their shells closed.
Call us to preorder your bay scallops this week to get the first catch of the season! Fingers crossed for good weather and supply. #eatmoreshellfish.
Mackenzie Jr, C.L., (2008). The Bay Scallop, Argopecten irradians, Massachusetts Through North Carolina: Its Biology and the History of Its Habitats and Fisheries. Marine Fisheries Review, Vol. 70, No. 3-4, 2008.