Many fisheries may be winding down at this time of year. But, another is just getting underway and it is one of my favorites to eat – Maine scallops. Scallops live around the world. There are large scallop populations in places like Japan, Peru and Chile, as well as off the coasts of Ireland and New Zealand. Along the northeast coast of the United States, we have two species of scallops – the Atlantic Sea scallop which is the larger of the two species and is what we find here in Maine as well as up the coast into Canada; and the smaller Bay scallop found in Massachusetts and further south.

There is something about scallops that gives them a certain amount of personality. Perhaps it is the fact that they are so speedy and can zip along by opening and closing their shells as if they are chomping giant bites of ocean along the way. In fact, it’s more like they are gulping ocean water as they filter out tiny organisms like algae and an assortment of zooplankton. As the “swim” along, they can propel themselves several body lengths per second. A scallop does this by using its super-strong adductor muscle. This is the tasty part that you eat. It can grow to be as big as a couple of inches across, which is giant relative to the pencil-top eraser sized adductor muscles of other bivalves like mussels and clams. We eat the bodies of those shellfish rather than their adductor muscles.

Scallops’ speed is part of what makes them so valuable, as they are not the easiest to catch. Try swimming after one and you’ll quickly discover that you have to be quite strategic. Nonetheless, diving is one way that scallops are captured. Those divers are particularly hearty given that scalloping is a winter fishery. They most often don dry suits to head into the frosty waters. In addition to having the right gear, in order to dive for scallops, you have to have a specific license issued by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Licenses are limited and are issued by a lottery that just occurred last week.

The other way to collect scallops is by dragging, as they are typically found on the seafloor. In this case, a boat pulls a net weighted down by chains along the seafloor to scoop them up. These licenses are also issued by lottery. The number of licenses of both types is set depending on the assessment of the population each year and the number of fishermen already holding licenses. Typically, the season lasts from 50-70 days running from November to April roughly with specifics depending on the area and the method of fishing. The exact dates and limits are set each year along with any areas that are closed for harvest.

The other thing that gives scallops personality is that they have hundreds of eyes ringing their shells. They can’t exactly see, but they can detect light and dark – not just one from the other, but subtle gradations as well as shifts in brightness. Their “eyes” are connected to a simple nervous system that transfers the information into muscle movements like quick contractions of that adductor to swim away from a predator casting a shadow.

Scallops aren’t one of the creatures that you are likely to see in the intertidal, but their waved shells are quite lovely and can sometimes be found on sandy beaches.

Winter is actually a good time to look for them among washed up seaweed and other marine debris. Or, if you’d rather eat them, keep an eye out at your local seafood market for the start of the season. They’re one of the rare marine species that you can enjoy all winter long.

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