They are worth a lot of money in Maine — third only to lobster and soft-shell clams in value, bringing in $6.8 million in 2020 and employing around 600 Maine fishermen. Many of these fishermen have just wrapped up their short winter season fishing for these juicy morsels that come from waters all along Maine’s coast, including the waters off Harpswell. These seasonal delicacies, Atlantic sea scallops (Placopecten magellanicus), are the target of the largest wild scallop fishery in the world.
Scallops are different from other bivalves not only in their value, but also in their biology. They use strong adductor muscles to pump their shells open and closed, propelling them through the water at speeds of over five body lengths per second. Scallops are harvested either by divers, who collect them by hand, or draggers, who use a specially designed drag to gather scallops from the bottom.
Scallops have particularly large adductor muscles compared to other species because of their swimming ability. Only the adductor muscles of scallops are eaten. For reasons of market preference as well as health concerns regarding bacteria that can grow in other body parts, scallops are typically shucked at sea and just their adductor muscles brought ashore. In some parts of the world, other parts of the scallop are consumed, including the roe (eggs) and mantle.
Encapsulating the number of scallop fishermen and the value of the fishery in Harpswell is complex. That’s because the scallop fishery is divided into many segments based on where and how the scallops are harvested. There are those that fish closer to shore in smaller boats and those that fish on larger boats offshore. And there are those who dive for scallops and those who drag. Each component of the fishery is managed differently, with different rules and seasons and by different agencies, and some fishermen have more than one type of permit.
The first division within the fishery is between state and federal waters. State waters include those out to 3 miles from shore and are managed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The state fishery has a limited season that runs from sometime in November through sometime in April. Specific dates depend on the method of harvest. New licenses are issued each year by lottery for each of the state’s three management zones.
Boats that use a drag or a dredge to catch scallops comprise most of the state fishery. These are known as “day” boats because they do not go out overnight and are often lobster boats refitted with scalloping gear. Each scallop drag consists of a chain bag attached to a steel frame and towed along the seafloor. The openings in the chain are designed to exclude scallops that aren’t yet 4 inches, the size for legal harvest.
The remainder of the state fishery is composed of divers. “Diver-caught” scallops bring a premium price and are labeled as such. These fishermen wear dry suits and scuba gear to plunge into chilly Maine waters. Brian Soper, a longtime diver and owner of the local seafood shop and restaurant Gurnet Trading Company, said, “I’ve been out when it’s 10 below and the wind’s howling. That’s the worst of it. But on a good day, I can get in five tanks and fill a couple of bags.”
In Zone 1, which includes Harpswell, divers go out in the early part of the season and again at the end of the season, while draggers go out in the middle of the season. This year, each type of harvester was allocated 60 days for the fishery. The draggers have already wrapped up their season, but divers will be out through the end of April.
The federal scallop fishery, 3 miles from shore and beyond, is regulated by the New England Fishery Management Council. Some of these fishermen are from Harpswell, but the larger offshore boats stay out overnight, traveling to areas like the Georges Bank and landing at ports outside of Maine, including New Bedford and Gloucester, Massachusetts.
In 2020, the federal fishery accounted for 99% of the catch for U.S. scallops, according to NOAA Fisheries. Forty-nine million pounds of sea scallop meat were harvested from federal waters, compared to just 660,000 pounds of scallop meat from the Maine fishery.
Complex regulations and management tools, including size limits, gear requirements and rotational closures, exist to ensure the sustainability of the scallop fishery, both for the fishermen who depend upon it for their livelihood and for the health of the resource. Currently, the harvest levels are steady. But this hasn’t always been the case. In the mid-2000s, the fishery hit record lows and severe restrictions were put in place to rebuild the population.
“The closures meant a significant sacrifice by industry, but the recovery was remarkable. Landings went up 10-fold,” said Jeff Nichols, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“It was tough,” said Soper, the local diver and seafood dealer. “For three years we didn’t take a scallop. But it was worth it when we saw them come back.” In recent years, according to Nichols, the harvest and value have been strong.
One of the challenges of this recovery has been how to manage the reopening of previously closed areas. This is important for fishermen who rely on diversifying their fishing business, particularly in the winter season, to include the harvest of other species, like scallops.
One of the areas that had been restricted was the federal Northern Gulf of Maine Area, which starts outside state waters and extends out to about 50 miles. In the fall of 2021, after encouragement from Maine fishermen and evidence that the resource had recovered, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to restore Maine fishermen’s access to this area.
Maine is beginning to see interest in scallop aquaculture. Even though the U.S. scallop fishery is the largest wild-caught scallop fishery in the world, the U.S. imported nearly $200 million worth of scallops last year, the majority coming from farms in China and Japan. Scallop farmers in Maine are using a variety of techniques, including vertical “lantern nets” that expand down into the water column, or “ear hanging,” where the scallops have a small hole drilled in their shell and are hung in pairs (like ears) on lines.
Although there have been some attempts at small-scale, experimental scallop farming in Harpswell, there is currently no commercial scallop aquaculture in Harpswell. However, there are currently 37 scallop aquaculture leases in the state, including commercial farms in Bar Harbor and Stonington. Several challenges exist in scallop aquaculture, including the cost of equipment, the fact that it can take nearly four years for a scallop to reach marketable size, and the need to collect scallop seed from the wild because there are no scallop hatcheries in Maine.
Susan Olcott, of Brunswick, is director of operations for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. She has a weekly column, “Intertidal,” in The Times Record, and writes for Maine Women Magazine.
A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.