Seafood dishes and fishermen’s paychecks will get a little sweeter in North Carolina this winter.
For the first time since a 2006 moratorium on bay scallop fishing, fishermen can harvest the tender mollusks in Bogue Sound and inner coastal waters south to the South Carolina line. North Carolina’s bay scallop fishing season will open Monday and run through April 1.
Although bay scallops are a small part of the commercial fishing harvest in the state, they are a high-value product known for being more sweet and tender than sea scallops.
Fishermen look forward to harvest season because it comes at a time when their business has slowed, said Mike Marshall, manager of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries central district in Morehead City. People on the coast also enjoy bay scallop season because unlike other shellfish that are shucked and sold to retailers across the nation, bay scallops caught in North Carolina tend to stay here.
“Probably more than any other fishery that I have been involved with, there is a lot of cultural heritage involved in that fishery,” he said. “It is amazing to see how invested people are.”
Bay scallops were once plentiful in North Carolina. In 1928, the state led the nation in bay scallop production with a harvest of 1.4 million pounds of meat, according to the N.C. Sea Grant program. The bay scallop harvest engaged up to half of the labor force in coastal towns in the winter.
But red tide, an algal bloom that releases a fish-killing toxin, decimated the bay scallop population in the late 1980s, and it hasn’t recovered. From 1995 to 2001, the bay scallop harvest decreased from 201,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds, according to an economic profile from the marine fisheries division. During that time, the value of bay scallop harvest in North Carolina had decreased by more than 97 percent.
The state imposed the 2006 ban on bay scallop harvest after years of declining populations, said Tina Moore, lead biologist on bay scallops for the Division of Marine Fisheries. Since 2009, the state has allowed fishermen to harvest scallops from specific bodies of water if the populations reach certain levels, but this is the first time Bogue Sound has met the criteria and the first time there will be any harvest in three years.
The ban allowed the bay scallop population to reproduce and multiply more quickly, though the shellfish have a lifespan of only 18 to 30 months and their populations vary widely from year to year, Marshall said.
“You can’t really watch the population grow and change. … They are an annual crop,” he said. “With those types of species we just try to protect some spawners, protect some habitat and then when the environmental conditions are right for the species to expand, you have the environmental components there to support growth.”
After years without local bay scallops, Kay Hamrick, owner of Tom Robinson’s Carolina Seafood in Carrboro, said she has had several customers ask about them recently.
While the store’s offerings depend on price, availability and quality, Hamrick said she tries to stock the freshest options and that there is demand for bay scallops. Now, it is just a matter of supply, she said.
“We get as much local catch as we can,” she said. “When you get used to eating fresh seafood, you can tell the difference.”