NATIONAL ORIGINS: MASSACHUSETTS; Sweet Bounty Returns: Sea Scallops, By John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, June 21, 2000

“In the mid-19th century, this was one of the most prosperous cities in the country. Merchants and ladies with parasols strolled its elm-lined avenues, successful ship captains vied to build the most magnificent Greek Revival-style homes and from the all-important Customs Tower whaling ships could be seen sailing in and out of the harbor, one of the most beautiful in New England.

‘Nowhere in all America,’ Herman Melville wrote in ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.’

That era of prosperity reached its height in 1857, when the New Bedford whaling fleet, employing some 10,000 sailors, outranked the fleets of all other whaling ports in the world combined. But shortly, as petroleum supplanted whale oil as a fuel, New Bedford went into an economic decline that has plagued it ever since. Even its scallop industry, once the city’s lifeblood, withered.

The late 1990’s were particularly difficult, as limits on fishing were imposed by government regulators, but now things seem to be looking up. Before the end of June, an abundance of sweet, extra-plump sea scallops should be flowing out of this port city to markets and restaurants all over the country. The reopening of 6,000 square miles, or about 30 percent, of Georges Bank, home to the world’s greatest scallop beds, in mid-June just about guarantees it. Scallops are perhaps the most ethereal of all seafoods — delicately translucent, creamy, tender, with a nutty, sweet flavor — and the ones arriving in the summer of 2000 should be some of the best ever.

The New Bedford scallop industry centers on sea scallops, the large variety gathered year round from the ocean floor off New England. Their much smaller cousins, bay scallops, are harvested from the shallow waters between Cape Cod and Long Island in a season that lasts only four months, November through February. Not surprisingly, the bay scallops are much more expensive. The industry is estimating that in 2000, sea scallops will cost 15 to 20 percent less than they did in 1999.

The sea scallop revival started in 1999, with about 20 million pounds of scallops landed, as against 12 million in 1998. But the quantity was not the only amazing change. We were served some incredibly sweet, tender sea scallops in Hawaii in October 1999 and found they had come from New Bedford. Clearly, the quality was improving as well.

No wonder the mood is so optimistic lately at the Whaler, a dark fishermen’s bar on Herman Melville Boulevard a few blocks from the waterfront here. After hearing reports that the 2000 haul would be even more bounteous, we found ourselves having coffee there in late spring with Jay Blanchard, a former scallop-boat captain who is now owner of Palmer’s Island Seafood, a distributor of scallops in the Northeast.

‘These areas are so heavy with scallops now that it’s like taking candy from a baby,’ Mr. Blanchard said. ‘There’s no way that anybody can avoid getting a good haul out there.’

As recently as 1998, it looked as if New Bedford’s scallop industry was doomed. Having closed huge areas of Georges Bank in 1994 because of overfishing, federal regulators were recommending a further 10-year hiatus to let scallop stocks recover.

The 1994 closing was only the latest attempt to combat overfishing. Previously, the government had imposed a program to try to reduce the number of boats in the fleet, regulations cutting the total number of days scallopers could spend at sea each year and a mandatory reduction of the maximum crew on each boat, traditionally about 13, to 7.

Scallopers were hit hard, because they are specialists. Their work requires equipment made specifically for scalloping, and most had only one or two boats. They couldn’t simply switch to another catch. When their boats were idle, so were they. And even in the best of times, sea scalloping is a bruising, not to say brutal, trade.

IT takes a full day to reach the scalloping grounds on Georges Bank, about 180 miles out, so scallopers typically go for 9 to 12 days at a stretch. Some go out for as long as three weeks.

Once the boat has arrived at the beds, two 13-foot dredges, basically bags fashioned from heavy metal rings fastened to a reinforced metal frame, are lowered to the ocean floor by winches amidships, then dragged along until full.

When hauled up, the dredges resemble nothing so much as dump trucks full of rocks. But as soon as they are poured out on deck, the riches are obvious. Working by hand, the crew quickly separate the scallops from the stones and other debris, shell and clean them, and put them on ice in the hold. Because the shells never entirely close, scallops are particularly perishable, and are usually processed almost immediately.

In a six-hour shift, a good shucker can cut about 80 pounds of scallops; everyone takes a hand, as a result of the mandatory reduction in crew size.

But 80 pounds is just a tiny part of the catch. When they leave the harbor and pass under the drawbridge on their way out to sea, scalloping boats are loaded with thirty to forty tons of ice; when they return, they are carrying about sixteen tons of shucked scallops.

The scallops come off the boats in bags of 40 to 50 pounds and are sold to local processors. The best — ultrafresh scallops caught the last day out — are sold to top restaurants and seafood purveyors. These are sometimes designated as ‘day boat scallops,’ but this term, which has gained great popularity on restaurant menus, technically refers to scallops harvested from shoal areas off the Maine coast by scallopers who go out and back the same day.

They share a certain elan with ‘diver scallops,’ very expensive scallops harvested one at a time from ocean shelves off Maine by divers. Some people consider diver scallops slightly tenderer and sweeter, but judging by the 1999 catch, sea scallops are their equal.

Much of the rest of the catch is shipped on ice, just as it was stored on the boat. The rest are frozen, either in five-pound blocks for sale to supermarkets and big institutions, or individually for restaurants or specialty markets. Fortunately, scallops freeze well.

The scallopers are paid about half what the dealers get for sea scallops. From the beginning, scallopers considered the government regulations an unnecessary burden. Around the end of 1998, many began protesting, saying that the scallop population had rebounded and that the regulations should be eased. Regulatory agencies disagreed and were moving ahead with plans for the 10-year closing.

But then some New Bedford scallopers took the unusual step of turning to academia. They asked Brian Rothschild and his associates at the nearby Center for Marine and Science Technology at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth to help them document their observations.

Professor Rothschild and his associate Kevin Stokesbury got permission from the government to do exploratory dredging in one area of Georges Bank. As the scallopers suspected, the findings indicated a relative abundance of scallops. In fact, what they found was enough to persuade the New England Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing in the region, to open one of the three closed areas of Georges Bank to scallopers for six months as a trial. The catch was excellent.

But traditional methods of estimating scallop abundance are subject to second-guessing and debate, and federal officials disagreed with the scientists’ projections on the scallop population. Then Mr. Stokesbury decided to mount an underwater camera on an oversize tripod to drop onto the ocean floor. He photographed portions of Georges Bank, counted the number of scallops, and extrapolated the results.

The findings amazed everyone but the scallopers.

‘The regulators were saying that there was a high mortality rate among the scallops, and it was true,’ said Michael Travers of the Economic Development Council of New Bedford. ‘But the reason was that there were so many of them that they were literally suffocating themselves.’

Fortunately, sea scallops are very prolific. Like other mollusks they are hermaphroditic and shed eggs and sperm, which unite in the water to become embryos. During the first month or so after fertilization, the incipient scallops go through three stages while still moving around in the water. They then settle on the bottom, begin to form their shells, and in three to four years reach the adult stage. What is eaten is the adductor, the large muscle that opens and closes the shell.

Persuaded by the photographs, the regulatory agency agreed to open two of the three closed areas. Patricia Fiorelli, a fishery analyst at the agency, said, ‘You’re going to see huge, plump, mature scallops that we haven’t seen for years, because previously they were caught before they got to this size.’

Some seafood connoisseurs might consider this a disadvantage, since size has traditionally been seen as something of a detriment in scallops. Sea scallops have been considered less desirable, for example, than the smaller bay scallops, which are thought to be more tender.

But we have long been fans of these bigger scallops for the same reason we like thick steaks: they are harder to overcook. Only sea scallops are large enough to roast, for example, since bays tend to overcook in the oven. Larger scallops also let you get a good, hard sear on the outside when sauteing or grilling, while the inside stays perfectly tender.

Whether large or small, the best scallops are those known as ‘dry’ scallops, which have not been chemically treated in any way. ‘Wet’ scallops have been soaked in phosphates at the processing plants in New Bedford, preserving them about four days longer. Unfortunately, the process also adds weight by plumping up the scallops with water. When cooked, these scallops exude quite a bit of liquid, which can play havoc with recipe proportions and make it difficult to brown them properly.

Dry scallops tend to be ivory, pinkish gray, tan, light coral or even grayish, usually a mixture of several colors in the same package. They are sticky and rather flabby. Wet scallops, by contrast, are uniformly bright white with a slippery feeling and often sit in a telltale pool of milky liquid. But it is admittedly difficult for most shoppers to tell whether scallops are dry or wet. The best bet is to buy from a fishmonger you trust, and ask for unsoaked scallops.

There are countless ways to cook scallops, although one of the most common is simply breaded and baked or broiled. There are countless ways to garnish them, with everything from bacon to cilantro. But every New Bedford scalloper we spoke with had the same idea: deep-fry them. The large scallops of summer 2000, plump and succulent, can be sliced in half to form medallions for quick frying, in the grand tradition of sailing ships and elegant dining rooms in New England since whaling days.”

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “NATIONAL ORIGINS: MASSACHUSETTS; Sweet Bounty Returns: Sea Scallops,” By John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, June 21, 2000

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