What’s so special about Downeast Dayboat scallops? The way they’re caught and the way they’re handled.
US scallop fishermen bring in between 35-55 million pounds of scallops each year. Roughly 95% of these scallops are caught on “trip boats”, which often fish offshore for a week or more at a time. Scallops are stored in cloth bags buried in ice, and over the course of the trip that ice melts and soaks into the scallops. That adds weight and dilutes flavor, so you end up paying more money for less scallop.
Maine’s fishery is completely different. Our fishermen have to stay within 3 miles of shore and can take no more than 135 pounds per day. Their trips last hours, not days, and since they’re fishing in winter, the scallops stay cool on deck with no need for ice.
You may have heard of “dry pack” scallops, which is supposed to mean that water has not been added during processing. There are two reasons you should be skeptical of this term:
- The vast majority of US sea scallops come from trip boats. Since the scallops absorb melting ice during storage on the vessels, their moisture content at offload is often several points higher than when they were caught. That means even “fresh off the boat”, they’ve already taken up water.
- Other than a few reporters, no one actually investigates claims of dry versus wet. Processors and dealers can put whatever they want on the label. While some are certainly honest, others are not.
As the ice melts. it seeps into the scallops, which can significantly raise the scallops’ moisture content. Sea scallops’ natural moisture content varies between roughly 74% and 79% depending on location and time of harvest. An FDA regulation requiring any scallop labeled “dry” to have a moisture content below 80% is still on the books but is currently not enforced. Industry standards “suggest” dry scallops should have moisture content below 83% but since the FDA is not enforcing moisture content regulations it’s difficult for consumers to know how “dry” their scallops really are.
Scallops are sold by the pound and extra water = extra weight = extra money. Since trip boats can bring in tens of thousands of pounds of scallops at a time, even a small increase in moisture content can mean huge additional profits. And the same incentive exists for dealers, who often store scallops in ice and sometimes soak them in tripolyphosphate solutions to further increase water weight.
Maine Dayboat Scallops are different. They’re placed in 5-gallon buckets rather than cloth bags, so they never come into direct contact with ice. I weigh them and place them in labeled Ziplock bags and bring them or send them to you.
Summary of different scallop permit categories
Permit Type: Limited Access DAS
Percentage of Landings: 95%
Management Summary: Each vessel is given a set number of open area Days at Sea (DAS) each year, along with a set number of closed area trips. They maximize fishing time by staying out on multi-day trips.
Impact: These vessels can bring in tens of thousands of pounds of scallops at a time. Scallops are generally stored in cloth bags buried in ice. As the ice melts it seeps into the scallops, increasing moisture content. This yields more money to the fishermen, who are paid by the pound. But it also impacts the taste of the scallop. When a trip boat scallop is “fresh off the boat”, it may have been sitting in a fish hold soaking up fresh water for days (sometimes a week or more).
Permit Type: General Category IFQ
Percentage of Landings: 5%
Management Summary: Vessels are assigned a set number of pounds each year. They can fish any time they like but can only bring in 600 pounds at a time.
Flavor Impact: Because they’re limited to 600 pounds per trip, IFQ boats tend to be dayboats. They generally store scallops in cloth bags buried in ice, but the scallops are not stored for long before being offloaded. They are generally of very high quality.
Permit Type: Northern Gulf of Maine
Percentage of Landings: less than one tenth of one percent
Management Summary: Fishermen must stay within the NGOM Management Area and can only bring in 200 pounds per trip.
Flavor Impact: All boats fish day trips in the cold inshore waters of the NGOM. Some fishermen store the scallops in cloth bags, others store them in 5 gallon buckets. Depending on the time of year, scallops are stored buried in ice or on deck (in winter), but because fishermen are limited to 200 pounds per trip, trips generally last 24 hours or less.
Permit Type: Maine State Permit
Percentage of Landings: Roughly one percent
Management Summary: Both divers and draggers fish within Maine’s winter season, which is set each year and occurs for 50 to 70 days between December and March. Fishermen are limited to 10 to 15 gallons (90 to 135 pounds) depending on area.
Flavor Impact: Scallops are taken from icy cold waters and are brought back to shore within hours of being caught. They are stored in 5-gallon buckets that are generally kept on deck for their brief journey to shore. If temperatures dip too low, they are stored next to the wheelhouse to prevent freezing. They generally are not stored in ice. Quality at offloading is extremely high, with different areas of the coast exhibiting different texture and flavor profiles.
Note: Maine is the only state with a significant dive fishery for scallops, and divers harvest less than 10% of Maine scallops. That means diver scallops make up far less than one tenth of one percent of all US sea scallops. Keep this in mind when you see “diver scallops” on menus. Chances are, that “diver scallop” came from a dragger.
Take Home Message
The quicker the scallop goes from ocean to plate, the better. And how they’re handled on their path to you has a huge impact on taste, texture and value. It’s important to work with a fisherman or dealer you can trust.
Don’t ask whether it was taken by a diver or a dragger.
Ask whether or not it was taken by a dayboat.
Buy Downeast Dayboat Scallops.
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES!™
 DuPaul, W, R. Fischer and J. Kirkley, 1996. Natural and Ex-Vessel Moisture Content of Scallops (Placopecten Magellanicus). Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester Point, VA