It started over bay scallops.
Or rather, what I know as bay scallops. The little tiny ones. Not the ones you sear and eat maybe six or eight of, but the ones where a satisfying serving is more in the range of 20 (what I now know to refer to as 40/60s). I can remember eating them only a few times in my life, but those meals stand out. When I was younger, bay scallops were on a short list of seafood items I definitively and consistently liked.
I always look for them, but I don’t see them on a lot of menus. When I moved to Maine, I thought I could eat bay scallops all the time, but that was before I realized I didn’t know anything about them.
What characterizes a bay scallop other than being small? I haven’t seen them on a single menu since moving to Maine — though I have eaten some delicious Maine sea scallops — and I started to wonder whether bay scallops were a real thing or a case of mistaken seafood identity.
The person who put me on the path to scallop enlightenment was Togue Brawn of Downeast Dayboat, who works with Maine fishermen to market and sell fresh local sea scallops. She emailed me back in December explaining that “what’s commonly called ‘bay scallops’ are a species of Argopecten that goes only goes as far north as Massachusetts.”
Bay scallops as I know them don’t even exist in Maine? I was crushed.
Some further research revealed that we were talking about Argopecten irradians, which, via three subspecies, has a range from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to the midcoast of eastern Mexico. I learned from a Marine Fisheries Review paper examining bay scallop history that bay scallops supported sizable commercial fisheries in Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina from the 1870s to the mid 1980s, but that population declines since 1985 have decimated commercial fisheries in areas where bay scallops once thrived.
Why? A combination of factors, not fully understood, but stemming in many places from intense brown and red tides in 1985.
Habitat change has also affected the bay scallop. They like to live in beds of eelgrass, which has become less abundant, the composition of the phytoplankton they like to eat has changed, pollution has increased, and waters have warmed, Clyde L. MacKenzie wrote in a 2008 paper published in Marine Fisheries Review. They have a short lifespan — 18-30 months — and seem especially sensitive to environmental factors.
Efforts are underway to restore some traditional bay scallop habitats. In New York, Cornell University is working with Long Island University and Suffolk County to create a bay scallop sanctuary in Peconic Bay.
I’m new to this industry, and when I started researching bay scallops late last year, I was beginning to wonder if they were a figment of my imagination. A marketing concept, perhaps, or a case of seafood fraud. Instead, I’ve learned the beginnings of the story of collapsed fisheries up and down the East Coast. We’re talking about landings that averaged nearly 300,000 bushels of live scallops annually from 1950 to 1985 down to 40,000 bushels annually from 1986 to 2005, according to MacKenzie.
It makes me appreciate, intensely, the bay scallop meals I have eaten over the years. It also has me daydreaming of a trip to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard — where active fisheries still exist — to try and find a fix before the season closes at the end of March. Conscious consumption has become a buzzword, but I can say with certainty that I’ll never take a legitimate bay scallop for granted again.