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Species Focus: Sea Scallops
With U.S. boats taking another cut in days at buyers may have to rely more heavily on imports
April 01, 2005
Sea scallops are a tasty, popular and profitable product both at retail and in foodservice, though impending management measures could mean tighter supplies and higher prices.
Sea scallops are found on the continental shelf in the western North Atlantic from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Large concentrations occur on Georges Bank and the Mid-Atlantic shelf, with smaller amounts along coastal Maine, in the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on St. Pierre Bank and in Port au Port Bay, Newfoundland.
The largest scallop populations are found in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, but other sources include Argentina, Chile, Iceland, Japan and Russia.
Scallops are harvested year-round by dredging from vessels 80 to 100 feet long. Once aboard, the bivalves are quickly shucked, placed in large cheesecloth bags and iced in the hold to maintain a consistent temperature.
The scallop dredges are allowed to fish the North Atlantic for only a limited number of days each year. Because the “days-at-sea” calendar begins annually on March 1, the supply of fresh scallops is usually greatest in the spring and summer. By winter, many vessels have used up their allotment of days, and supplies dwindle.
Days-at-sea regulations went into effect in 1994, and have been revised several times since. They came into being due to “serious overfishing problems,” says Pat Fiorelli, public affairs officer for the New England Fishery Management Council in Newburyport, Mass.
“We were trying to develop a management system.”
Over the years, the average number of days that scallop dredgers are allowed to fish those waters has dropped from 130 to 52.
“That does not mean small catches,” Fiorelli adds.
Supply reduction expected
“We’re expecting a reduction in the U.S. harvest” following the recent reduction in days at sea, says Bob Blais, CFO of Seatrade International in Portsmouth, N.H., which processes, packages and exports fresh and frozen seafood, including scallops, monkfish and skate wing.
He notes that, effective March 1, the scallop fishery dropped from roughly 126 days at sea to 100 days, about a 20 percent reduction.
Teri Frady, communications chief for NOAA Fisheries in Gloucester, Mass., calls the estimate “roughly correct,” though she expects the drop in volume to be less severe due to differences in yield between “open” and “special” access areas.
In open-access areas, fishing fleets can use allotted days at sea at their discretion. A special-access area limits the number of trips, though the yield is typically high.
“In the last year we’ve been seeing yields from the open areas that were a little bit larger than we’d expected,” says Frady.
“It’s basically an indicator that the stocks are in good condition.”
Even though the number of days at sea will be fewer than last year, Frady explains, “they’re not expecting the overall landings to be reduced as dramatically as you would think. The reason is that there is a split between [the number of] days you can [spend] in the open areas and days you can [spend] in the special access areas.”
Blais believes there will be a smaller supply, higher prices, “and we’ll all be scrambling around to find more product.”
Seatrade will look to imports from Canada, China, the Philippines and elsewhere to help take up some of the slack.
“It’s going to be hard for the industry in total to make up for the lack. It will be tougher for some companies, there is no doubt,” says Blais.
Prices heading higher
Prices, which Blais describes as already high,” will increase again, he adds. “The boats are getting $6.50 a pound right now, and they were getting $7 a few weeks ago. If you go back a year it’s over a $1.50 increase.”
The price “can’t really go much higher,” he adds.
“Then restaurants and stores will take it off their menus.”
“The market right now is fairly strong given the supply situation,” says Michael Davis, president of PanaPesca USA Corp. in Pembroke, Mass., a member of the Italian-based PanaPesca Group. Prices are going up due to “the management of the resource by the government, restrictions on fishing days, size restrictions, fishing restrictions, etc.”
Davis, formerly the captain of a 100-foot scalloper out of New Bedford, Mass., is less than happy with the restrictions. The government, he says, is “making it difficult for the vessels to harvest across the full size range.
“The way that they’re managing the different areas right now — the number of days, the number of crew members — the vessels are really focusing on the larger scallops.
“Given the time it takes to [get a pound of] meats that are U-10 or a 10-20 versus a 30-40, you’re far better to be fishing for larger stock. As of right now we have very little if any 30-40s available to sell, or even 10-20s for that matter.”
It has only been within the last year, he adds, that the size issue has cropped up.
In Canada, “they’re catching 20-30s, 30-40s and 40-60s but not the big size,” adds Davis.
There had been opportunities for large companies to engage in what some call “co-opetition,” working with competitors to the mutual benefit of both.
Unfortunately, Davis notes, “Most of the Canadians have pulled out of the U.S. market. They’re not selling scallops in the U.S. anymore because the dollar is too weak. All that product is going to Europe, and there is going to be a huge void in the American market.
“Whatever is coming in is being consumed fairly quickly now,” says Davis. “There is not a lot of big inventory kicking around. A relief on the supply side would be allowing more boats into the industry.”
Davis believes there are more scallops out there than many think.
“We used to pound [the beds] pretty hard in the ’70s and ’80s with boats with no regulation. [The fishery] had its up and down years, but it still survived.
“Today, there is general consensus that there are probably still scallops out there on the bottom of the sea that are dying of old age because of over-management.
“If you don’t open them at some point and fish the scallops literally stack up on the bottom,” adds Davis. “They grow and then they die. The government reopens the areas when they feel the time is right.”
As a result, he is now receiving larger scallops, usually 10 per pound as opposed to the more usual 20 to 30.
“They’re finding that the scallops have just grown so large. But over the last three to four years, we’re seeing a real steady supply of scallops,” says Davis.
“Overall it certainly is good times both for the harvesting sector and the sales-and-distribution sector,” says Joe Furtado, executive vice president of Eastern Fisheries in New Bedford. The fiscal year that ended on Feb. 28 was Eastern’s best in terms of gross dollar sales and pounds landed.
Eastern will have two fewer trips into the Hudson Canyon area off the coast off New Jersey, as well as two fewer open-area days at sea, notes Furtado.
“The direct result of that is that [the industry] will have an estimated 12 million pounds less to harvest than we did for this current fishing season,” he says.
The company is exploring a joint venture with a farming operation in China to help make up lost volume.
“They have made great strides into the farming of their sea scallops, which has become a very suitable alternative to our domestic product,” says Furtado.
Soaking debate continues
The issue of “wet” scallops vs. “dry” continues to be a topic of debate, regardless of the source.
“Basically,” says Scott Loranc, seafood manager for HEB’s Central Market in Austin, Tex., and former chef at McCormick & Schmick’s in Portland, Ore., “the difference between dry-pack and wet sea scallops is this: The processors are injecting water into the scallop, so they get water weight as opposed to actual meat. We only carry the dry-pack seas.”
“It’s not that they necessarily inject water, but they soak or dip them, and there could be some chemical [tripolyphosphate],” explains Richard Vellante, executive chef and senior vice president at Legal Sea Foods in Boston.
“They’re looking to increase the shelf life as well as the weight.”
Brad Newick, who co-owns with his father, Jack, Newick’s Seafood Restaurants in Dover and Merrimack, N.H., and South Portland, Maine, agrees that the issue of soaking scallops is controversial.
“The reason some people soak them is to get more weight out of them, and they may be cheaper than fresh unsoaked or good quality pre-frozen scallops,” says Newick.
Newick’s menu includes deep-fried sea scallops and bay scallops, broiled sea scallops, shrimp and scallops Alfredo, shrimp and scallop marinara, scallop pie and a fried sea scallop roll.
“[Sea scallops are] very popular here,” says HEB’s Loranc. “They’re also usually a destination purchase. The customer — usually between 35 and 50 has got a recipe, and knows what they’re doing.”
Sea scallops are much larger than bays, and are sold by the count per pound in sizes ranging from under 10 to 10-20, 20-30 and 30-40 count. Central Market prices them at $14.99 for 20-30s, and $18.99 for U-10s. His store goes through a minimum of 100 pounds of sea scallops each week. Deliveries come three times per week.
“I really prefer the sea scallops because of their size, and I like the meaty texture,” says Kathleen Taggart, director of Draeger’s Cooking School, affiliated with San Francisco-based Draeger’s Markets.
“Plus, I think they’re easier to cook. I like them when they’re not over-cooked, and with sea scallops you have a little more margin of error because they’re bigger.”
Whether supplies are depressed or not, nothing is going to sour Americans on this deep-sea delicacy.
Find other SeaFood Business articles with sea scallops here.