***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.