Move over Maine lobsters. An even more revered, more sought after New England shellfish has stolen the culinary spotlight for a few fleeting months. Fresh-caught Nantucket Bay scallops – arguably the best and most coveted seafood in America – are now arriving at select restaurants and seafood shops throughout the country, and they won’t be here for long.
About half the size of the sea scallops you’re used to finding on a menu, prized Nantucket Bays are night and day from their larger relatives. They require very little seasoning to taste divine, due to their naturally given sweetness, and should be enjoyed as unadulterated as possible.
Nantucketers have been fishing these delectable morsels recreationally since October 1, but since the commercial season officially opened November 1, the yearly frenzy of fishermen have set out into not-yet-frigid waters eager to bring back up to five allowed bushels per day before the season closes at the end of March.
In addition to being a delight to the palette and a multi-million dollar boon to the island’s economy, Nantucket Bay scallops are fascinating, even mysterious creatures. Why do they only thrive off the coast of a small island, 40 miles out to sea? Why are they only legally fished five months out of the year? What makes them taste so darn good? To answer these questions and more, we consulted an expert on the subject and have offered our own advice on how to cook these magnificent morsels. So, catch these delightful delicacies while you can, and read on to find out what makes Nantucket Bay scallops America’s most coveted seafood.
The extraordinary flavor has everything to do with timing. They are very short-lived invertebrates, explains Dale Leavitt, Ph.D., Associate Professor of the Marine Biology Department at Roger Williams University. “They rarely make it to three years old, with many animals dying after a year or a year and a half,” he says.
Nantucket’s fishery is set up to harvest animals aged 1-2 years old – when not only can they be most sustainably harvested, but also when they taste their best. “At this age, the scallop’s muscle size and mass are at peak with the highest amounts of carbohydrate reserves. The bulk of individuals caught are about 1.5 years old, and they likely would not have made it to the following June or July, the time of year when the animals reproduce,” he says.
The Right Conditions
Nantucket’s unique marine ecosystem, protected thanks to the efforts of fishermen and conservationists alike, is what makes the area around the island an ideal place for bay scallops to flourish. “The eel grass growing on the bay floor creates a hydrodynamic system that protects growing seeds,” Leavitt explains. “They attach up high on eel grass fronds where crabs and starfish cannot get them.”
Another reason that these delicious delicacies are limited to Nantucket’s shores is because the species does not take well to captivity, making them a lot more problematic to grow than other shellfish like oysters or quahogs. Aqua-farmers have attempted to cultivate bay scallops elsewhere with limited success. “The animals are aggressive swimmers and use a sort of jet-propulsion system to move, opening up their shells and exposing their delicate muscle,” Leavitt explains. Farmers put them together in protective mesh bags that are effective in keeping away predators, but their proximity means they end up frequently injuring each other.
Part of what makes bay scallops so special today is that they’re rare – but they weren’t always. Once plentiful from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico, bay scallop populations have tumbled in recent decades. “Indications of population crash were there 20-30 years ago depending where you were on the coastline,” Leavitt explains.
The reasons behind the crash are not completely understood. Today, Nantucket Bay is essentially the last place where commercial fishery of wild bay scallops can be supported on an on-going basis (although Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay is seeing a resurgence). “Fishing them is a long standing tradition on Nantucket that turned from a fairly common thing to something that’s now very special,” Leavitt says. “Martha’s Vineyard has some small areas but Nantucket leads the way.”
As Nantucketers became distinctly aware that changes were happening to their scallop population, they banded together and took action to stabilize and protect the scallops’ habitat. Three years ago, Leavitt was hired by the Urban Harbors Institute to be part of a team that wrote up the Nantucket Shellfish Management Plan, a plan aimed at protecting the population and the fishery of these beloved bivalves.
On top of the strictly enforced season timing, a rule prohibiting fishing when the temperature falls below 28 degrees also helps sustain the population. The rule prevents young shellfish from freezing after they’re dredged up and sorted above water. Last year’s cold weather and abundance of storms meant fishermen lost 26 days of fishing during the 2014 season. Whether that means this year will have a higher yield or if another unfavorable winter is to come remains to be seen.
Tradition / Heritage
Fishing Nantucket Bays is something of a family affair for residents of the island, and an important part of island heritage. It’s a common sight to see families heading to the water on clear October days, catching them from their boat or simply wading into the harbors with rakes. “On opening day, representatives from every level of life on the island take time off work and get into the water,” Leavitt says.
In addition to being high in protein and low in fat, scallops (bay and sea scallops) are an excellent source of vitamin B12, an important nutrient for cardiovascular health. Vitamin B12 is needed by the body to convert homocysteine, a chemical that can directly damage blood vessel walls, into other benign chemicals. High levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk for atherosclerosis, diabetic heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. In addition to their B12, scallops are a good source of magnesium and potassium, two other nutrients that provide significant benefits for the cardiovascular system.
Because of their fresh and delicate flavor, Nantucket Bays need no fuss. They’re best cooked simply. Searing them with butter in a sauté pan over moderately high heat can take less than two minutes until they’re perfectly opaque. Finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon, a pinch of salt and your choice of herbs and spices—paprika or Old Bay and some fresh parsley works wonderfully. Look for more time-honored recipes in Elaine and Karin Tammi’s Scallops: A New England Coastal Cookbook or Marny Clifford’s Washington Cookbook.