For brainless, primitive bivalve mollusks, Atlantic sea scallops lead pretty interesting lives. The deceptively simple organisms live in vast beds along the ocean floor. Tucked just beneath the sand, where they burrow for safety, scallops are virtually invisible at first glance.
But these plucky little creatures aren’t content to let life just pass them by. If they don’t like something about their neighborhood—the current, the water quality, the available plankton, the potential for danger—they pick up and move, and take all their buddies along. Motivated scallops can make tracks, too, covering as many as 12 miles a day.
The exodus is a sight to behold. Scallops propel themselves forward by opening their shells wide, sucking in water, then clamping shut, forcing the water to shoot out the back of the shells. The effect is cartoonlike—think of flapping, disembodied jaws, zipping along in herky-jerky fashion, sometimes shooting both water and sand out of their rear ends. No wonder there are so many YouTube videos of this phenomenon.
Yes, scallops are fascinating in many ways. They can be hermaphroditic, with both male and female sex characteristics. They’re often long-lived, with a lifespan of up to 20 years, though they’re usually harvested at two to three years of age. Perhaps most surprisingly, they have blue eyes. That’s right: rows and rows of protruding, bright blue eyes—up to 100—that help them sense light and darkness. Eat your heart out, Paul Newman.
But the delicacy we know and love didn’t always have such star quality. In fact, you might say the scallop is the comeback kid of the seafood platter. Here’s why.
Dredging Up the Past
Though it’s hard to believe today, over the years, scallops have waxed and waned in popularity as a food source. In the 1960s, they sold for as little as 20 cents per pound; compare that to today’s prices, which can reach the $14 per pound range.
At the time, scallops suffered from an image problem. “If you could open them and see the heart and the muscle and all the inner workings, you wouldn’t want to eat them,” says longtime Cape May scallop fisherman Wayne Whalen. “They’re not very handsome looking.”
Most people of the time thought the almost perfectly spherical scallops sold in grocery stores or fish markets were “punched-out shark meat,” he adds. “They didn’t understand the flavor or how to prepare it.”
But the fishermen knew. They also knew that scallops, which were plentiful and available year-round, could be a meaningful revenue source—if only they could get people to eat them. So in 1970, the historic fishing village of New Bedford, Massachusetts joined with nearby Fairhaven to launch the annual Cape Cod Scallop Festival.
“Every boat and broker would donate a bag of scallops for advertising in Home and Garden, Women’s Day, Life magazine,” says Whalen. “They promoted the industry for a long time and built it up.”
And that’s how people fell in love with the scrumptious scallop. Production soared. So did prices. Unfortunately, the scallop became a victim of its own success. Decades of overfishing routed the stock, in some areas to the point of near extinction. It took strong conservation efforts, backed by government oversight and stringently enforced regulations, to bring the population back.
“Crop rotation” began in earnest in 1996, when the Sustainable Fisheries Act was signed into law. Its goals were to stop overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, protect the habitat, and ensure that all the scallop boats out there were abiding by the new rules.
In addition, the size of the rings in dredging mesh were increased from three to four inches, not only to minimize bycatch—the unwanted fish, turtles, crabs and other marine life caught up in the dredge—but also to let smaller scallops escape so they could grow and mature.
As part of the operation, the government periodically closed large fishing grounds in the north and mid-Atlantic—such as George’s Bank between Cape Cod and Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia—to any type of dredging operations, enabling the population to rebound.
Until the onset of regulations, “the ocean was yours,” says Whalen. And while plenty of fishermen griped about the new limits on their industry, “The scallops have come back a hundredfold—they’re stronger than ever. It goes to show you that managing areas does work.”
“Scallops have made us a lot of money,” agrees Keith Laudeman, president of Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company, who owns a fleet of scallop boats as well as The Lobster House restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in Cape May. “If not for the government and the regulations, we would have overfished and decimated the population.”
In another crackdown on the industry, the National Marine Fisheries Service limited the number of days scallopers could dredge—currently, it’s 180 days per year—and also limited the size of crews, reducing it from 12 to 14 men to a maximum of seven. Fewer scallopers means a lighter harvest.
Despite these constraints, it’s still a $440 million-dollar a year industry, according to the most recent statistics from September 2015, and it’s really big right here at home. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the ports of Cape May and Wildwood make up the largest commercial fishery in New Jersey. And on the East Coast, New Jersey is second only to Massachusetts—albeit a distant second. In 2016, the Bay State bagged almost 22 million pounds of scallops, and New Jersey just 8 million.
That said, in 2015, NOAA operations research analyst Dvora Hart, PhD estimated that there were 10 billion scallops in and around a coastal Cape May fishing bed picturesquely known as the Elephant Trunk. Last year, says Hart, surveys conducted by the Habitat Camera Mapping System, or HabCam, showed about nine billion.
“It isn’t surprising that there was a bit of a decline, as there was harvesting in these areas and also there are always some scallops that die from natural causes,” says Hart. From 2016 to 2017, the number may be lower still, she adds, “again due to harvesting and natural mortality.”
That doesn’t mean the stock isn’t healthy. “We still are seeing some areas with very high abundance of scallops,” and that includes the Elephant Trunk, she notes. Recent HabCam photos show “densities of 50 scallops per square meter or higher, which are exceptionally high, and only rarely seen,” says Hart. “These densities are much higher with correspondingly higher catch rates.” And that means good fishing for commercial scallopers.
All the dredging and processing, significantly, is done the old-fashioned way, says Whalen, with scallops shucked by hand, dropped in muslin bags and put below decks on ice. “Any kind of mechanism would ruin the industry,” he says. “They want to maintain it, not let it get mechanized to where it gets out of hand.”
Imagine that. An industry that doesn’t want to automate its own crews out of a livelihood
A Life on the Ocean Waves
From a landlubber’s point of view, the life of a fisherman seems filled with romance, adventure, danger—kind of like Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, or something out of a Hemingway story.
The stereotype is only partly true. Certainly it’s a risky business. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, fishing consistently ranks as the second most dangerous profession behind logging. Anyone who’s ever watched The Deadliest Catch—and it’s a popular series among fishermen—knows this is a perilous way to earn a dollar.
Mostly though, it’s just hard, backbreaking work, and plenty of it, with some scallopers working ten to 12-hour shifts over ten days on the ocean.
Like most scallop men—women are rare in this profession, at least as crew members—Whalen got into the business young, thanks to a family connection: his cousin was a fisherman. “The scallop industry really came strong to Cape May in the 1960s, and people with a long-time fishing with a good history could qualify to borrow federal money at that point.” His cousin had a 100-foot scallop boat built and brought to Cape May. It was aptly called the Sea Wife.
As a Coast Guard veteran, Whalen was accustomed to being on the water, but otherwise was a total greenhorn. He soon learned that scallop-shucking is a delicate, even surgical procedure. Scallops are shucked soon after they’re hauled aboard, and it takes a deft touch to preserve only just the clean, white adductor muscle, the edible part. (The rest of the scallop—including the shell—is tossed overboard.)
“One of the old-timers noticed I wasn’t cutting real clean, I was leaving a little ribbon of meat,” recalls Whalen. “So he says to me, ‘Son, you gotta start cutting cleaner. See that ribbon of meat? That’s my new swimming pool you’re throwing away.’ And he was right.”
A good scalloper makes a good living, but he more than earns it—in sweat, toil, and the constant risk of hazards, mainly weather-related. Despite modern navigational tools, minute-to-minute forecasting and other safeguards, like mandatory survival suits for all on board, if trouble strikes 100 miles out to sea, a boat and its crew are pretty much on their own until help arrives. Beyond weather, there’s considerable danger aboard a scallop boat because of the dredges, giant chain bags that swing out on metal arms, drop into the ocean to scoop up their quarry, then are hauled back up when they’re full. Dredges can weigh from 1,000 pounds to more than a ton each, and heaven help the fisherman who doesn’t stand clear of the massive moving parts.
In 2009, the scallop boat Lady Mary went down off the coast of Cape May, killing six of seven crew members. It was the worst tragedy to befall a fishing boat off the coast of New Jersey, rivaling the 1991 disaster that claimed the Gloucester sword boat Andrea Gail (and inspired Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm).
And last year, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued three men from a life raft after their scallop boat collided with a tug about six miles off Cape May. Luckily the Last Stand did not live up to its name; the vessel was lost, but all aboard were saved.
It can be argued that the risks are worth it, at least from a financial standpoint. On a good trip with a good crew, a boat may pull in 15,000 pounds of scallops. The price per pound is set every day in New Bedford, and once the haul is offloaded, 40 percent off the top goes to the boat owner “to pay for fuel and grub,” says Whalen. A single trip may require $18,000 in fuel alone, and the fishing license can cost up to $5 million.
The rest of the money is divided in shares among the crew members. Newbies get a portion of a share until they’ve proven their mettle, usually in about a year. It’s a good living, and scallop fishermen don’t live up (or down) to the stereotype of rum-chugging, yo-ho’ing seamen, says Whalen.
“If you’re on a good boat, wearing oilskin for 180 days and making a hundred and fifty a year, you don’t want to mess around.”
Today, a fleet of some 50 scallop boats and their crews plumb the depths off the coast of Cape May, running in open deep-water channels from Virginia to Canada, all in search of the humble bivalve mollusk, now a star of the seafood platter.
After all the years he’s worked dragging in scallops, Whalen still loves them. “I used to like those little ones, they were sometimes pink depending on what they were feeding on. And I would have a bottle of Worcestershire sauce down in the shucking room and I’d eat them raw. They were good, tender and sweet.”
Keith Laudeman, not surprisingly, is also a big booster of scallops from local boats. “Ours is a preferred scallop,” he says. “I have to say our scallops taste best.”
They are pretty pricey these days, but it’s a price seafood lovers are willing to pay. As Frugal Gourmet Jeff Smith once wrote, “Scallops are expensive, so they should be treated with some class. But then, I suppose that every creature that gives his life for our table should be treated with class.”
If you’re lucky, this remarkable little creature and some of its kin will land on your dinner plate this summer. Don’t be surprised if they come directly from the port of Cape May.