Featured photo: Captain Kristan Porter on the F/V Brandon Jay, a dayboat out of Cutler, Maine. In the foreground you'll see two buckets of scallops. The limit in his area is three buckets.
For years, consumers were told "diver scallops" were the crème de la crème of scallops. Unfortunately we now know the majority of "diver scallops" are just mislabeled drag-caught scallops (read more here).
Maybe you've heard about "dry" scallops and wondered if that term was actually meaningful. The good news is: yes it is! You definitely want dry scallops, because wet scallops, whether they're soaked in chemicals or just plain old water, are inferior to dry scallops for all sorts of reasons (read more here).
Well scallop fans, now there's another term you should become familiar with: DAYBOAT. Because dayboat scallops have more of what you want and less of what you don't.
There are several categories of dayboats, and to understand these categories you should know that scallop fisheries occur in two broad categories: those in waters managed by the states (0-3 miles) and those managed by the Federal government (3 miles out to the boundary of the US Exclusive Economic Zone). Close to 98% of all US sea scallops come from Federal waters. But for now, back to the boats themselves:
A dayboat is a boat that stays at sea for 24 hours or fewer. This contrasts with a trip boat, which is at sea for more than 24 hours (often a week or more).
The US sea scallop harvest in Federal waters varies each year, but in recent years has has been between 40 million and 55 million pounds. Roughly 95% of these scallops are harvested by "trip boats". These boats are allocated a set number of fishing days so to maximize fishing time vs travel time they generally stay out on trips of about a week.
Don't be too alarmed here: the shelf life of scallops (and other fish) is a lot longer than you might think. And that shelf life is enhanced by storing scallops in cloth bags buried in ice: the gases and liquids produced as the scallops age can escape through the cloth, which prevents the scallops from going sour. But this works both ways: melting ice is also absorbed by the scallops, which adds weight and dilutes flavor.
So that's what happens on trip boats, which harvest 95% of sea scallops in Federal waters. The remaining five percent is harvested by dayboats. This is a bit of an oversimplification because some trip boats also have dayboat permits but for the sake of simplicity I'll leave it there..
Rather than being given a certain amount of fishing time, each dayboat is given its own individual quota. They can harvest year round but are limited to 600 pounds or 800 pounds per trip, depending on where they're fishing. So they may occasionally stay out for more than 24 hours, but they're generally gone for a day at a time. They harvest 5% of the scallops taken from Federal waters.
Then there's an even smaller category of dayboats: boats participating in the Northern Gulf of Maine Scallop Fishery can take up to 200 pounds beginning on April 1 and ending when the quota is reached (usually in May). These tend to be smaller boats since the daily limit is just 200 pounds, and most come from Maine, NH or Massachusetts. Their trips last just a few hours since they're only taking 200 pounds. Some of them store their catch in cloth bags, others use five gallon buckets. Their quota is set each year: this upcoming season they'll harvest just under 400,000 pounds, so that's a little more than one percent of the scallops harvested in Federal waters.
The last category of dayboats are those that participate in state water fisheries. Recall that's from the shoreline out to 3 miles. While Massachusetts and New Hampshire have state water scallop fisheries, they're eclipsed by that of Maine, whose draggers and divers produce between 300,000 and 800,000 pounds each year.
Maine has different calendars for divers and draggers but with limited exceptions Maine Dayboat Scallops are harvested from December through March, and roughlly 95% of them come from draggers. Each vessel is limited to either 90 or 135 pounds, depending on fishing area. Their catch is landed within hours and since they work in the coldest months of the year, they tend to store their catch in five gallon buckets on deck: no ice needed.
So you now know what dayboat scallops are. They represent a small fraction of all US sea scallops. They're landed within hours of being harvested and they're far less likely to have been adulterated than trip boat scallops. Are trip boat scallops bad? NO! Trip boat scallops can be excellent, and to be honest, we need trip boat scallops: the trip boat fishery is well-managed and is an effective means of delivering large quantities of scallops to the marketplace.
Think of scallops like wine: I drink wine pretty regularly. And most days I'm perfectly satisfied with Barefoot Pinot Grigio. It's tasty, it's inexpensive, and I'm perfectly happy with it. But every once in a while, I want to splurge on something special. On those occasions, I may opt for an Oregon Pinot Noir or a Washington state Riesling (I like my whites). But sometimes I want something really special, and on those occasions, I'll do some research or I'll go to the wine shop and ask for their very best. Think of trip boat, dayboat and Maine dayboat in the same way: good, better best.
Below: dayboat work is hard work!