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.
“The acrimony comes during a poor scalloping season... It is illegal to take seed scallops... even though many are almost as large as adult scallops. Mr. Grunden invoked his authority under state law to close Sengekontacket Pond to scalloping before the season officially opened... Yields in other Oak Bluffs waters have been marginal, and town officials are considering the closure of other usually abundant waters.”
— Steve Myrick for the Vineyard Gazette
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 day boat 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.