Produce isn’t the only seasonal crop in Maine. Seafood is seasonal too, harvested at certain times of the year. And when you shop seasonally for seafood, you get it at the peak of freshness and at a lower price.
Knowing seafood’s seasons is important “for the same reasons that it’s important for people to know that there are seasons in farmed products,” said Monique Coombs, who oversees marine programs and fishing community engagement at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
“You’re going to get a good price if you’re buying in season,” Coombs said. “Just understanding the season helps support fishing families and the working waterfront, and helps you buy the best seafood that you can during the time that it’s available. Knowing those things help you eat more in line with what’s actually available and what fishermen are catching and what supports the environment the most.”
Alternately, when you buy out of season, you are more likely to purchase seafood that has been shipped from elsewhere in the United States — or even the world.
When you buy Maine seafood in season, “you’re talking about that fish that is out of the water, iced and processed in Portland,” said Joshua Edgcombe, cofounder and marketing director of SoPo Seafood in Biddeford. “Other [fish] have to be landed in Indonesia, let’s say, processed, flown to Boston and driven up to Maine. All of that time the fish is just hanging out. You’re better off going to get local seasonal fish because it’s so much fresher.”
Maine Sea Grant, which is a partnership between the federal government and the University of Maine to promote research and education in marine sciences, keeps a list of the seafood seasons in Maine. The season is dependent on both when it makes sense to harvest the seafood based on the availability of stocks and the weather patterns, as well as some regulations to protect from overharvesting and to keep competing harvests from overlapping.
“For example, it may be that there are closures in areas for organisms that are in their spawning phase that would have to do with preserving the stock of species so it can reproduce and maybe not because it’s not tasty or inaccessible,” said Dana Morse, marine extension associate at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the Maine Sea Grant.
Seafoods such as mussels, which can be fished year round, have a season where they are peak quality. Morse said that lasts from October to April.
“The reproductive cycle might allow that mussel to be in prime fatness up to May or June and then they’re going to spawn in some locations and then they’ll be rebuilding after that spawning event, so there will be a little bit less tissue inside the shell,” Morse said.
Misconceptions about seafood seasons
You might already be aware of some seafood seasons. Lobsters, for example, are easiest to harvest during the summer months after they have shed and are out ravenously looking for food. These are called soft shell lobsters. Hardshell lobsters are available at other times of the year, and have their devotees though, Morse said.
However, there are also common misconceptions about Maine’s seafood seasons. For example, scallops, while often enjoyed in the summer, are harvested during the winter (unless they are farmed through aquaculture).
“If someone is telling you that you have a fresh Maine scallop in August — well, now because there’s this very small sea farming industry in Maine, there’s a miniscule chance that that’s what it is — but probably, you’ve been lied to,” said Togue Brawn, fishmonger and owner of Downeast Dayboat. “It’s really something you want to make the most of in the winter and freeze as much as you can.”
Crabs are also not best harvested in the summer — Morse said their peak season is September to December.
“The qualities of the meat will be pretty consistent and good at any time like a lobster but the amount of meat that will come out of a 1 pound crab in the fall might be different than a 1 pound crab in the summertime.”
Morse also said that the old wive’s tale about oyster seasonality — that you can only eat oysters in “months with an ‘R’” — is incorrect.
“That harkens back to the days of poor refrigeration,” Morse said. “With our better understanding of what good shellfish handling practices should be, now you go through any certified dealer you’re going to get a quality and safe product.”
What’s in season this summer?
This is the seafood in season this summer, according to the Maine Sea Grant:
— Black bass, peak season July and August
— Cod, peak season July through October
— Hake, peak season July through November
— Herring, peak season June through August
— Lobster, peak season July through November
— Mackerel, in season May through October
— Striped bass, in season June through September
— Swordfish, in season June through August
— Tuna, in season June through October
Keeping up with the seasons
The best way to keep abreast of the seasons of seafood and to get the freshest catch off the coast of Maine is to develop a relationship with Maine fishermen.
“Obviously, it’s a lot easier if you’re on the coast or within a coastal community you can create situations for yourself where you’re befriending fishermen and learning about fisheries,” Coombs said. “Try attending events like the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association puts on.”
Brawn also recommended looking on social media for groups like Maine Fish Direct on Facebook, where fishermen will post about their catch of the day in search of customers. You can also buy seafood through reputable fishmongers, such as Harbor Fish, Gulf of Maine Sashimi and SoPo Seafood.
“The seafood industry has been historically known for being a little funny with labeling,” Edgecombe said. “You want a company that’s been around for a while and has good reviews and a little bit of a reputation.”
Eating seafood seasonally is not only good for your tastebuds, but good for the food system as a whole.
“I think the coronavirus pandemic just showed us how removed we are from producer and consumer in food,” Brawn said. “The more of those steps we can remove the better everyone is going to be.”