ELLSWORTH, Maine — If you like fresh Maine scallops that have been out of the water only a day or two, this is the time of year to enjoy them — but you had better be ready to pay for the privilege.
Maine’s 2014-15 scallop season opened Monday at a time when fishermen are getting prices at or near the highest they have seen, which means consumers will be shelling out more than they are used to for savory seafood.
Opening-day prices in Maine, where fishermen with state licenses will have up to 70 days spread out over the next five months to drag or dive for scallops, are around $13 to $14 per pound, people involved with the fishery said Monday. That’s higher than the average price Maine fishermen had last winter, which at $12.24 was the highest such average ever recorded in Maine, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Marine Resources.
Reggie Young, the scallop buyer for Maine Shellfish in Ellsworth, said daily auctions for scallops held in New Bedford, Massachusetts, have generated “really high” prices, but he is not sure whether they will be matched by Maine dealers as landings start coming in.
“It’s been very strong,” Young said of demand for the product. “It’s been in the $13 to $14 [per pound] range.”
Seafood lovers will contend with retail prices of around $20 per pound, give or take a few dollars, and certainly more if they are dining out. Prices for raw, packaged scallops offered Monday by online retailers ranged from $15 to $22 per pound.
Cary Hanson, who owns and operates Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro in Ellsworth with her husband, Rich Hanson, said they buy scallops direct from a local diver, which helps ensure the bivalves are only a day or two out of the water when served. She said a scallop appetizer at many Maine restaurants is likely to cost between $8 and $11, while an entree with scallops would be in the $28 to $32 range.
Restaurant prices in Boston are higher, she added, but nowhere will a diner find a dish that includes a full pound of scallops on a plate.
“If we did a full-sized plate [of scallops], it would be shocking what they were,” Hanson said.
Landings totals have been creeping back up since the mid-2000s, when scallop fishermen harvested a statewide total of 33,141 pounds of scallop meat — less than 1 percent of the record statewide haul of 3.8 million pounds in 1981. During the 2013 calendar year, 424,500 pounds were harvested statewide.
The average statewide price scallop fishermen earned for their catch hit a 22-year low in 2004, when it was $4.01 per pound. During the next five years, average prices paid to fishermen hovered around $8 per pound but have increased by more than a dollar each year since then.
However, the supply of scallops in Maine coastal waters is not large enough to have a noticeable impact on prices across the country. The nationwide landings value of sea scallops in 2013 was ranked fourth among all commercial species with a total worth of $467.3 million, but only $5.2 million of those scallops were caught in Maine waters.
The state’s management scheme for the 2014-15 season is different from prior years, which could affect the supply of scallops from Maine coastal waters, according to Rob Bauer, general manager of Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor.
Two-thirds of the fishing areas between eastern Penobscot Bay and West Quoddy Head have been open to scallop fishing in each of the past two seasons, but only one-third will be open this winter. Closures will rotate among three sets of scallop fishing areas in eastern Maine each year through early 2022, with only one set open each year.
“Expectations [for this season] are modest, given the more restricted territory,” Bauer said.
Five years ago, in response to declining scallop stocks, the state implemented closure areas along the entire coast to help protect coastal stocks and to allow them to recover. Since 2009, large areas have been closed to draggers and divers alike. In the past two years, several areas that had been closed from 2009 to early 2012 were open only one day a week instead of the usual three or four days a week.
Daily catch limits and total fishing days are the same this year as they were last season. Each licensed fishing vessel can harvest a maximum of 15 gallons a day along most of the coast but only 10 gallons in Cobscook Bay. There will be only 50 days of permitted fishing in Cobscook Bay but 70 days along the rest of the coast. As usual, any licensed scallop fisherman can harvest scallops in any open fishing area in Maine.
Bauer declined to say what his pier was offering to fishermen Monday for their scallops, but he said it is higher than what he was paying at the start of last season. He pointed out that the cost of diesel fuel, which most fishermen use for their boats, is much less than it was a year ago. According to information posted online by AAA, diesel prices in Maine were around $3.95 per gallon in early December 2013 and currently are closer to $3.50 per gallon.
Bauer said the fleet seems to be more spread out on opening day this year. There were reports of good hauls Monday off Harrington and Machiasport, and of several boats fishing the tidal Skillings River, between the towns of Lamoine and Hancock. One 5-gallon bucket holds about 40 pounds of scallops, he said, and the extra bucket allowed to boats fishing outside Cobscook Bay is a good reason to fish further west.
At $13 to $14 per pound, an extra 40 pounds of scallops could net an additional $500 or so for each fisherman every time he or she goes out — if the supply holds up, Bauer noted.
“The extra bucket is definitely an incentive around here,” he said. “It’s a chunk of money.”