BATH, Maine — Most commercial fisheries in Maine are different from the lobster industry in one crucial aspect: annual catch totals have not consistently gone up over the past 20 years.
Landings for species such as shrimp, scallops, herring, urchins and many types of groundfish peaked in Maine in the 1980s and 1990s, which has led to economic challenges for fishermen as their costs increase and their catches decline. Even in Maine’s lobster fishery, which according to preliminary estimates may have hit a record high in 2011 of more than 100 million pounds, lower prices and rising expenses have put a crimp in the industry’s bottom line.
There is one new scallop dealer based in the midcoast area, however, who thinks she may be able to offset declining catches in that fishery with a new product. Togue Brawn, a former Maine Department of Marine Resources staffer, is the first dealer in Maine to get a special license to buy and sell scallops still attached to the shell. In December, she began buying scallops in the half-shell from half a dozen of Maine fishermen and then selling them to restaurants as a value-added product.
“It’s sort of a novelty,” Brawn said last week. “My goal is to get the fishermen more money.”
No fishery in Maine has faced tougher times in recent years than the scallop industry. Low population estimates led the state to nearly cancel the second half of the 2009 scallop season, and since then DMR has prohibited scallop harvesting in several areas along the coast in an effort to get stocks to rebound. Even in areas where harvesting has been allowed, scallop fishermen this winter have been coping with low landings, especially in Cobscook Bay, which has long been considered one of the best scalloping areas in the state.
In 2010, fishermen working along Maine’s coast caught and sold more than 185,000 pounds of scallops for approximately $1.5 million, or about $8 a pound. That total value is about 10 percent of the fishery’s peak value in 1981, when Maine fishermen caught and sold more than 3.8 million pounds of scallops at $4 a pound for a fishery total of $15.2 million.
For Brawn, the volume she is aiming for will come nowhere close to making up for the decline in landings over the past 30 years. The potential demand for scallops in the half-shell, in which the edible adductor muscle is left attached to the shell while it is cooked and served, is a niche market at best, she said.
“It’s small,” Brawn said of her current volume. “It’s less than 100 [scallops] a day. I’d like to move several thousand in a week.”
Operating as Maine Dayboat Scallops, Brawn also sells regular, de-shelled scallops to help pay her bills. She said she sells only scallops caught by in-shore Maine fishermen, who bring their day’s catch back to shore every day, because she believes they are better than scallops that are caught further offshore, which might not make it onto a diner’s plate until more than a week after they are caught.
The reason a special license is required for scallop dealers who might want to sell scallops in the shell is because of concerns about paralytic shellfish poisoning, also known as PSP. Parts other than the shell and meat, or adductor muscle, are known to retain naturally occurring toxins that can lead to PSP.
Unless fishermen are specifically authorized to do so by DMR, as the fishermen Brawn buys from are, they have to shuck the legal-sized scallops they keep at sea, meaning they cut out the adductor muscle and throw everything else — roe, shell and innards — back into the water. Any scallop with a shell less than four inches in diameter, which is the minimum size allowed by the state, has to be returned to the water intact.
Trish DeGraaf, scallops resource coordinator for DMR, said Friday that other parts of scallops, such as the roe, often are edible and eaten in other countries. If the state allowed these other parts to be harvested, she said, it would have to implement a monitoring system to check them for PSP toxins before they were distributed to consumers — which could be a difficult thing to justify for a struggling industry in a weak economy.
Making harvesting exceptions for the toxin-free scallop shells, she suggested, could have a ripple economic effect. There is some evidence that shells discarded in the ocean help provide habitat on which young scallops can settle, she said, but there also are other on-land uses for shells, such as in arts and crafts or reuse by restaurants as plate garnishes. Finding ways to reduce waste from the scallop fishing will help boost the fishery’s value, she said.
“That’s an important thing to consider for all our fisheries — getting the biggest bang for the pounds that are landed,” DeGraaf said.
Brawn said that is the reason she applied for the special license, as any Maine scallop dealer can. Restaurant chefs and their diners, she said, will pay a higher price for scallops in the shell because the shell, though inedible, can play a prominent role in how the dish is presented.
To demonstrate her point, Brawn has come up with a recipe for a seafood pot pie in which the shell, complete with attached scallop meat, functions as the bottom of the pastry dish that keeps the rest of the filling in place.
“It does make for an impressive presentation [on a dinner plate],” Brawn said. “It’s the perfect size — four to five inches.”
And though her volume is still small, Brawn has been able to pay fishermen a higher price for scallops in the shell.
She declined to go into extensive detail about her finances, but said she charges restaurants between two dollars and three dollars per scallop for scallops in the shell. Considering that one pound of scallops typically contains between approximately 20 and 30 scallop meats, and that fishermen were paid on average $8 per pound in 2010, Brawn’s product fetches a substantially higher price. DMR has yet to release scallop landings statistics from 2011.
Preston Alley, a Beals Island fisherman who sells scallops in the half-shell to Brawn, said Sunday that he sold 72 scallops in the shell to Brawn last week. It’s not a lot but the per-pound price for the product, including the shell, is several dollars higher than the $8 per pound scallop fishermen averaged in 2010, he said. If demand for the product grows, its economic impact would be more substantial, he added.
“Scalloping isn’t great right now,” Alley said. “It helps out a little.”
Dana Temple, a scallop dealer from Cape Elizabeth who chairs DMR’s Scallop Advisory Council, said Friday that there isn’t enough demand for scallops in the shell to absorb the millions of scallops caught in Maine’s coastal waters each winter.
Temple said he personally is not considering dealing in scallops in the shell because he sells large wholesale volumes of frozen scallops to large retailers, not restaurants. But for smaller dealers who can establish a clientele of restaurants interested in scallops in the shell, and for the fishermen that dealer would buy from, the specialty product can help boost the value of the scallops they bring ashore, he said.
“It’s not an easy situation right now,” Temple said of Maine’s scallop fishery. “[Fishermen] should be trying to get every dime they can out of every pound they catch.”
Temple said there are other dealers in the United States who sell imported scallops in the half-shell, some of which come from as far away as South America. But for freshness of taste, which he said usually lasts only a few days after the scallop is harvested, scallops caught in Maine coastal waters are among the best.
Expanding into niche products and promoting Maine scallops as a premium seafood will only help the state’s coastal fishermen, he said.
“You can’t beat what the fishery provides,” Temple said. “Someday, people will thank Togue for what she is doing.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.