Elevating the Maine Scallop to Haute Cuisine
Maine scallops are delicious, but lobsters get all the glory. One woman is on a quest to change that.
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Togue Brawn and I hunker down in the wheelhouse for warmth, next to the captain who’s got one hand on his radio, the other turning the wheel. The GPS, he grunts, is broken. He’s navigating blind.
Behind us on the deck, an enormous spool of steel cable unravels and drops an iron-mesh dredge—basically a supersized bag-like fishing net—down to the seafloor. The boat circles until the captain makes the call and the spool retracts, pulling up the dredge, which appears suddenly at the boat’s stern, swinging to and fro. Two deckhands, each clad in orange rubber overalls and knee-high boots, grab for the large bar beneath the net, yelling above the engine’s roar. The net groans with scallops, each nestled safely inside its brown shell flecked with mud and barnacles.
The deckhands start sorting, small scallops arching overboard and larger ones clattering into nearby bins. Then they don thick workman’s gloves to pry open the shells, tossing the entrails into the sea; the jiggling adductor muscle, the part we eat, goes into buckets, where they gleam bright white. All around us, on the decks of near-identical boats (mostly retrofitted lobster vessels) other fishermen—and they are almost all men—do the same, silhouetted against the pink streaks of a frigid dawn. By mid-morning, they have found their rhythm, and the whole of it—the unwinding, dragging, hauling, sorting, and shucking—coupled with the bobbing of the boat, feels like an act of meditation.
The scene will no doubt replay tomorrow and the day after that and so on until the season is done. Today is December 1, and scalloping season has opened in eastern Maine.
The first time I tried a Maine scallop was while visiting my in-law’s house in a rural coastal town. The scallops were the size of apricots and seared lightly in brown butter. Sweet and tender, they were sublime, and bore little resemblance to the chewy, slightly fishy scallops at my local supermarket. Where had these been all my life? And where was their champion?
I soon found Brawn, a 46-year-old, fast-talking, foul-mouthed, self-professed Maine scallop evangelist. Brawn runs Downeast Dayboat, a company she started in 2011 with the pledge to get Maine scallops en route to their buyer, whether an individual client or restaurant owner, within 24 hours of being plucked off the ocean floor. To get the timing right, Brawn drives up and down the coast of Maine all winter to meet the fishermen at the docks. She then packs the freshly harvested catch into her giant, white Ford E350 refrigerated van and drives to the closest delivery point. Brawn, who almost always travels with a fisherman on opening day, invited me along.
Brawn’s foray into all things Maine scallop began years earlier, in 2007, when she became one of two marine resource management coordinators at the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). There was one person overseeing lobsters and one overseeing everything else, Brawn says. “I was the everything else.” Early on, Brawn’s boss acknowledged that the job was too big for one person. At least, he added, the abundance of options would give Brawn the freedom to choose her own focus. Soon enough, she chose scallops.
The Maine guys are bit players in a big ocean, Brawn says. In 2012, the last year for which data is available, dockside revenues for the entire scallop fishery in the US Northeast—which extends from Maine to Virginia—equalled US $559-million, ranking it among the most valuable single-species fisheries in the country. Of that scallop pie, states only have jurisdiction over the first three nautical miles (5.6 kilometers) from shore; the federal government’s reach extends from the state boundaries to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from shore. That means scallops caught in Maine waters comprise about one percent of the total northeastern catch, a veritable drop in the bucket.
Scallopers fishing in federal waters go out for about a week, give or take a few days, throwing the scallops on ice, where they soak up water. In 2012, the Boston Globe reported that scallops sold in supermarkets often contain water well in excess of industry standards, which means consumers are paying for water not meat. In contrast, because scallopers in Maine waters are required to stay within the state’s jurisdiction and are only allowed to catch a limited quantity of scallops, they only go out for a few hours. That short time frame, coupled with the frigid temperatures, means they can put their scallops in dry buckets. No ice needed.
Yet, en route to processing centers, those fresh Maine scallops also get soaked and then lumped together with their offshore cousins. A person buying New England scallops at the supermarket may get a now-besmirched Maine scallop or two in the mix and never be the wiser. “It’s like,” Brawn pauses, searching for an analogy with appropriate gravitas, “taking a bottle of Dom Pérignon and pouring it into a vat of Barefoot bubbly.”
Elevating a superior product like Maine scallops into haute cuisine requires both luck and pluck. A point of comparison is the story of Maine’s famed shellfish, the lobster, once referred to as the cockroach of the sea and a meal even prisoners despised. But in the mid-1800s, when it became possible to deliver lobsters long distances via rail, far-flung consumers began to prize the crustacean’s rich meat. Then, thanks to the rise of canning technology over the next several decades, lobster meat became accessible, abundant, and cheap. By the end of the Second World War, the lobster fishery had become one of the country’s most valuable.
Creating the same sort of niche market for Maine scallops, and in turn bolstering the livelihoods of the fishermen catching them, became Brawn’s raison d’être. But her life mission came with a built-in existential crisis. How does an evangelist convince the masses to pay top dollar (Maine scallops cost twice as much as those at my local supermarket in Burlington, Vermont) for a food item they don’t know exists? Brawn is undeterred. “When I want to do something, I just fucking do it,” she says. “I’m not used to failure.”
Back on the boat, the Sun has finally risen and Kristan Porter, the captain, determines he’s reached the 61-kilogram daily limit. It’s only 10:15 a.m. He reels in the dredge a final time and turns the boat back toward our launch point in Cutler, Maine, population 507. Once the houses along the shoreline come into view, he kills the engine and joins the deckhands in shucking scallops.
As he works, Porter talks about how things were in the early 1990s. Back then, the Maine guys could stay out all day and haul in 450 kilograms of scallops in a single go. By the mid-2000s, they were pulling in a tenth of that. “We started towing places we hadn’t towed before,” Porter says. Then those areas also started to dry up.
“The only limits that were there were put in place to prevent conflicts with the lobster fishery,” Brawn adds. In practice, that translated to one season for lobster and another for scallops to ensure the scallop drags didn’t accidentally haul in lobster traps.
Yet Brawn didn’t have to look too far offshore to see a model that had worked in reviving scallop populations. By the 1990s, free-for-all fishing had decimated populations of both scallops and groundfish in federal waters across the Northeast. So in 1994, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) temporarily closed fishing for scallops and groundfish, such as cod, haddock, and flounder, in parts of an area known as Georges Bank. That 4,800-square-kilometer expanse, located in the waters around Nantucket and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, accounted for roughly half of all scallop landings in New England. Then NOAA waited for over four years to partially reopen those waters.
While some of the groundfish, particularly cod, failed to rebound, in part because they kept swimming out of protected areas, the closures turned out to be perfectly suited for scallops, whose modus operandi involves dashing off a few meters to escape a predator and then hunkering back down into the substrate.
The multiyear closure also worked with the scallops’ non-linear growth curve—the mollusks double their weight and reach harvestable size between their third and fifth years. Yet in the ’90s, it had become common to catch younger scallops that had not reached harvestable size. Moreover, because scallops are sold by weight, the older, heavier ones bring in considerably more money. So the theory was that letting scallops reach age five would significantly increase the harvest, says Dvora Hart, operations research analyst at the federal government’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The results of the experiment were dramatic. Less than two years after the closures, scallop biomass in the closed areas had tripled, in part because the scallops were enormous. “They were fishing these little three-inch [7.6-centimeter] scallops back in the mid-’90s, and when they went into these closed areas, they were getting scallops that were five to six inches [12.7 to 15.2 centimeters],” Hart says.
Today, rotational fishing remains in place in those waters off Massachusetts, and has been implemented farther south. Meanwhile, the fishery has benefitted from the enactment of other measures, such as quotas on the quantity scallopers can haul in and limits to the numbers of days they can fish. “[The federal Atlantic scallop] fishery is so healthy right now that you probably couldn’t kill it if you had to,” says Dana Temple, owner of Crescent Bay Inc., a seafood company in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Inspired, Brawn began agitating for a similar fishing ban in Maine when she started at the DMR. But faced with losing a chunk of their livelihood, and being notoriously averse to change, most fishermen were incensed. Pretty quickly, things got ugly. Once, when Brawn and her best friend, Deirdre Gilbert, now the director of marine policy at DMR, were intercepting fishermen coming in after a day’s haul to answer survey questions, they encountered a man on his phone. Someone, he seethed, speaking loud enough for the two women to overhear, “should just shoot the DMR employees.”
For 19 years, Brawn has worked as a waitress at J’s Oyster in Portland, Maine. She took shifts all through graduate school, commuting the two hours each way on weekends, and even stayed on when she started at the DMR. Visited by celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, J’s is legendary for once requiring waitresses to wear blouses, maroon hot pants with black stockings, and high heels. Although the hot pants days are now over, J’s has retained its grit. “Togue likes the saltiness of the place,” says Leslie Nee, another longtime employee.
The clientele at J’s educated Brawn in the language of Maine scallopers. She knew the crowd at fishermen’s meetings wasn’t the sort that responded to niceties or equivocations. Brawn showed her empathy instead with fresh-baked cookies and brownies, which she brought to every meeting of the state’s Scallop Advisory Council (SAC). “I was,” she says, “seven parts robocop and three parts cheerleader.”
Initially, Brawn and Dana Temple, the SAC chair at the time, began picking off the low-hanging fruit—a shortened fishing season, lower catch limits, and requiring bigger holes in the dredges so smaller scallops could escape and reproduce. But the larger, more elusive goal was to move ahead with a fishing ban.
In 2008, the SAC brought a closure plan to the state’s umbrella advisory council for authorization. But after the advisory council determined that the plan lacked industry support, the measure failed and the 2008–09 fishing season opened with no closures in place.
The matter came to a head in early 2009, when DMR commissioner George LaPointe warned the SAC that if the fishermen failed to generate an interim closure plan, the second half of the season would be canceled. To prepare for the February make-or-break meeting, Brawn made five batches of brownies and cookies. Eighty-five mostly angry fishermen showed up that afternoon and refused to eat the baked goods. Then Farrell Beal, a well-respected fisherman, finally took a bite and pronounced the brownies the best he’d ever eaten.
The mood shifted. The meeting was “tense and loud,” Brawn says, but the group agreed to some temporary closures so fishing could continue. At subsequent meetings, the fishermen agreed to close off 20 percent of the Maine scallop fishery for three years—a plan the advisory council authorized.
But just as the ban was set to lift, Brawn left her job at DMR. She figured Maine scallops were going to rebound and that they’d need a path to market that steered well clear of those waterlogged federal scallops. So she saved her earnings from J’s and launched Downeast Dayboat.
Brawn’s seemingly brash career move highlighted how little she worries about things like a 40-hour work week or steady paycheck, Gilbert says. Instead, Brawn has long relied on J’s as her financial pillar. “Everything monetary, she converts in her head to how many J’s shifts it is,” Gilbert explains. “Do I need these $300 sunglasses? Oh that’s just a shift and a half at J’s.”
Shortly before the ban lifted in 2012, surveyors from the state took stock of scallops along the ocean floor. In southern Maine, where scallops were already more scarce, fishermen had resisted closing the best fishing grounds. Unsurprisingly, scallop yields in those areas remained low. But in more fertile areas, biomass had greatly increased, in some places as much as eightfold.
Things may not be perfect, but Brawn is proud of her team’s work. The state’s scallop fishery, she says, “was complete shit for decades and we brought it back.”
But the fishery isn’t in the clear yet, cautions Trisha Cheney, who replaced Brawn at the DMR and took over the scallop file. Because once a Mainer has a scallop license and pays regular renewal fees, the license can be kept indefinitely. When the fishery tanked, most of those license holders stayed home. In 2008, the year before the ban went into effect, only 231 scallopers went out; by 2015, that number had jumped to 445. And 190 license holders are still waiting for the fishing to get even better before going out. “There are too many licenses in this fishery,” Cheney says. No one knows the ideal limit.
To compensate somewhat, the state has adopted an adaptive management strategy that lets it immediately shut down an area that seems like it’s getting overfished. But, Cheney says, “We’re not going to claim victory.”
The same could be said for Downeast Dayboat. When Brawn filed her taxes in 2014, she realized that her company had lost $30,000. In 2015, she reduced her losses to $10,000. “The trend is in the right direction,” Brawn says.
It takes until just after 11 a.m. for Porter and the deckhands to finish shucking. The entire day’s haul fits inside three 20-liter buckets. As we reach the shore, Porter calls in to a dealer to get a sense of the going rate for the day. He’s buying at $12 per pound, $1,620 for the morning’s catch. Brawn buys part of the haul for $14 per pound, a nod to the superior quality of the Maine product. After the season ends, she also pays each fisherman she works with a bonus.
With Downeast Dayboat scallops costing around $30 to $35 per pound plus shipping, these scallops make an undeniably expensive dinner. But Brawn contends the rare few who have heard of and tried a Maine scallop barely look back. “People send me emails saying, ‘You’ve changed my life,’” she says.
Before heading up the algae-covered ladder leading to the dock, Brawn pops a scallop into her mouth and hands me another, which is slick like butter and tastes slightly sweet—kind of like lobster, only better.