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Sea scallops

Larger meats bolstered the market, but a new area opening may net bigger landings in all sizes for 2007

The rebounding sea scallop resource is a boon for
    buyers and suppliers alike. - Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Packing
By Marianne Deward
November 01, 2006

The buzzword for this year's sea-scallop supply seems to be "big," but it's the size - not the quantity - of the scallops that's got buyers and sellers rethinking supply.

Some industry observers attribute the abundance of large scallops to this year's reopening of areas such as Closed Area II and Nantucket Lightship under the Atlantic sea-scallop fishery management plan.

The closures gave the bivalves time to grow, resulting in a bumper crop of U10 to U15 sea scallops, rather than the smaller 20-30 and 30-40-count that were more plentiful in years past.

Others say the larger sizes are due to redesigned gear that catches more mature scallops and crew restrictions that favor obtaining weights faster to cut days at sea. Whatever the reason, larger scallops have been abundant and given buyers somewhat of a reprieve from last year's record prices.

Sea scallops are sourced from around the world, including China, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Iceland, Japan, Vietnam, Russia and the Philippines. Domestic sea scallops are found in waters of the western North Atlantic shelf from Newfoundland to North Carolina, with a large concentration on Georges Bank and the Mid-Atlantic shelf.

The species has been subject to a fishery management plan since 1982. This year, as part of the plan's Amendment 10, Framework Adjust­ment 18 for 2006-07 was implemented in July. This affects the more than 300 full-time, part-time and occasional vessel-permit holders in the U.S. Atlantic sea-scallop fleet.

"Every two years we analyze what the biomass will be, estimate what will be caught per day and decide what should remain closed or open for the next two fishing years," says Deirdre Boelke of the New England Fishery Management Council.

"This gives us a good idea of expected landings and revisits any concerns. We're actually now working on Amend­ment 11."

An August 2006 federal survey, which took into account scallop cycles and their dependence on ocean currents, indicates the biomass in Georges Bank stock is trending downward, says Boelke, but the Mid-Atlantic, especially the southern area, is rebounding.

"Despite the one downward trend, the total sea-scallop biomass is in very good condition," says Boelke. "Over­all, this year's sea-scallop landings are expected to be up slightly from last year's 56 million pounds."

The 2007 harvest will likely to go up a bit more with the opening of the Elephant Trunk Access Area (ETAA) in the Mid-Atlantic, which researchers say contains a large amount of scallops.

"We need to be very cautious, however, and watch this area closely," says Boelke.

Amendment 10 of the management plan closed the Elephant Trunk to scallop fishing in July 2004, anticipating that the scallops would reach optimum size for harvest in 2007. Though the season historically begins on March 1, the area will be open Jan. 1, 2007, through 2012, with a two-month seasonal closure each fall to protect endangered sea turtles.

The early opening is intended to spread the fishing effort in the ETAA over a longer time.

Approximately 1,360 trips are scheduled for next year in this area, unless the number is reduced due to a lower exploitable biomass. For 2007, days at sea have been slightly reduced, from 77 to 75 days.

"This year may have produced larger scallops, but the opening and closing of areas remains a delicate balance. We don't want the scallops to get too old and grow slower, but we can't harvest them too soon, either," says Boelke.

"We try our best to determine the best possible times for scallop harvesting to optimize the yield as well as plan for the future."

Supply and demand

Buyers and sellers agree that 2006 was a much better year for sea scallops in regards to both supply and a continued high demand. However, with the larger-sized scallops, resource adjustments had to be made.

Sales of U10s were healthy, with prices falling from 2005 highs of $9 a pound, but Bob Fitzsimmons, president of Tri­some Foods in New Hampshire, felt the shortfall of the 20-30 and 30-40 sizes many restaurants use for appetizers, stuffings and salads. He imported scallops from China to fill that demand.

"We've been importing the smaller sizes at a very good value," says Fitz­simmons. "Even with new openings, I don't expect that to change in the near future."

Terry Malloy, director of sales for Chesapeake Bay Packing, a Virginia processor that owns nine scallop boats, relied on increased retail 
involvement to sell the larger sea 

"Foodservice, which typically buys larger sea scallops, alone couldn't have utilized all the large sea scallops we got this year," says Malloy. "Every year is different when it comes to sea scallops, though.

"With the Elephant Trunk opening in 2007 we may see more of the smaller sizes. It's supposed to be the largest biomass of sea scallops that scientists have ever seen.

"And, following China's increased seeding efforts last year, we may see one of the largest landings coming out of there."

Malloy believes the management plan is one of the most successful in the commercial fishing industry.

"Resources are continuing to rebound," he says. "I don't see anything in the near future that would prohibit this from moving forward. Hope­fully we'll never see the resource problems of the early '90s again."

For Todd Daniels of Wanchese Fish Co. in Virginia, which has 15 company-owned vessels, sea-scallop management is here to stay. "We're going to have management, so we need to work with it," says Daniels.

"You can't please everyone, but it can continue to be successful if the fishing industry cooperates and speaks with one voice."

Quite a price ride

On the heels of 2005's soaring sea- scallop prices, prices remained high early in 2006. Mid-year, prices began to stabilize, with some periodic spikes. "Though prices have gone down, they still are a bit unsettled," says Fitz­simmons.

"They fluctuate. In the short term, [2007] may be a tough year, but in the long run, prices should level off."

In general, prices for fresh domestic sea scallops went down during the summer months and stayed in the $4.50 to $4.75 range.

"It's been a roller coaster, though, with prices spiking to $6 or $7 a pound and then going back down to $4.75, back up to $6.50 and now leveling at around $5.50 for the larger U10-12s," says Malloy of Chesapeake Bay Packing.

"With the September closing of Closed Area II, and early closing of Nantucket, there may be more spikes before the year ends."

Frozen-sea-scallop prices hit record highs in 2005, which, according to Malloy, can lead to losses. He cites importers who brought them in at $7 a pound, sold them at $8, brought more in at $8 and then had a hard time selling them at $9.

Malloy predicts that 2007's pricing will be similar to that in 2006.

Prices for imported Chinese sea scallops are $5 to $5.25 a pound for 20-30s and 30-40s. The U10 Japanese Hokkaido sea scallops range from $6 to $7 a pound.

A sure thing

Despite the changing prices, sea scallops remain a popular item in retail stores and on menus, and buyers are becoming more knowledgable about the difference between dry (untreated) and soaked scallops.

Stew Leonard's, a large specialty retailer with stores in Connecticut and New York, primarily sells dry U10 scallops.

"Sea-scallop sales are fantastic at all three of our stores," says Mike Reseska, seafood director for Stew Leonard's. "We typically have two to three promotions each year during the summer months because most of our customers like to grill scallops."

Shawn Wellersdick, chef/owner of Port Land Grille, an upscale restaurant in Wilmington, N.C., uses dry sea scallops for his featured menu items. "They used to be a luxury item, but not any more," he says. "Quality and supply are good, and people expect them on our menu. They fly out the door."

Chef Richard Rosendale, restaurant owner and team captain of the Ameri­can Culinary Federation's Culinary Team USA, will be featuring sea scallops in the Team USA Olympics in Luxembourg from Nov. 18 to 22. The scallops are infused with fresh truffles, gently cooked in butter and then seared. "Sea scallops are always a sure thing on any menu," says Rosendale.

"I use only dry packed, but many of the luxury resorts I worked at use dry and treated; it depends on what works well for the facility."

Monty Berg, supervisory consumer safety officer with the National Marine Fishery Service Seafood Inspection Program, says the debate over dry and treated sea scallops has raged for more than 30 years. "Treating scallops with tripolyphosphate to gain weight is almost standard now," says Berg.

"It's safe, but when they shrink down to nothing while cooking and are transl­ucent, then the scallops are over treated. Buyers still need to 
be aware."

Eric Bloom, president of the family-owned Eastern Fish Co. of Teaneck, N.J., sees customer backlash to treated scallops.

"I think the trend is swinging back toward using more dry," says Bloom. "Savvy consumers want value, not water gain."

The debate over treating scallops will continue, but sea scallops will remain a consumer favorite.

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