All you need to know about Scallops
There are a number of commercial scallop fisheries in the US targeting several species of scallop, but by far the largest fishery is that of the giant sea scallop, aka Placopecten magellanicus, the “sea scallop”. Giant sea scallops are fished from Canada down to the waters off Cape Hatteras. Bay scallops are a different species (Argopecten irradians). They live in waters south of Maine, although climate change has brought a few to our neck of the woods.
Maine’s scallop season is determined each year but basically it lasts between 50 and 70 days (depending on the area) that can occur between December 1 and April 15. Draggers can fish any open day and are limited to either 15 gallons (roughly 135 pounds) or 10 gallons (90 pounds) depending on fishing area. They bring in over 95% of Maine scallops. We have a very small dive fishery, but please keep in mind the vast majority of scallops labeled "diver scallops" are actually mislabeled drag-caught scallops from the federal fishery.
95 percent of US sea scallops come from trip boats, meaning they stay out on long trips. They can fish in any open area at any time throughout the year and can take as many pounds as they want. If they’re fishing in an access area they’re limited to 18,000 pounds. While fishing they store their catch in cloth bags buried in ice, which melts and soaks into the scallops. They sometimes bring in tens of thousands of pounds from one trip and since those trips can be longer than a week, "fresh off the boat" doesn't always mean fresh.
A dayboat is a boat that spends less than 24 hours at sea. Here in Maine, our fishermen are limited to no more than 135 pounds per trip, so our fishermen tend to stay at sea for mere hours. Also, our fishermen traditionally store their scallops in five gallon buckets, not cloth bags. That means ice never comes into contact with our scallops. So when you're eating a Maine dayboat scallop, you're eating the very best: super fresh, not diluted with water.
An additional bonus of eating true Maine Dayboat Scallops is that you can explore different varietals. Scallops from different areas have different flavors, and it's fun to select your favorite.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of "diver scallops" are just mislabeled drag-caught scallops. True dive-caught scallops represent less than one one hundreth of one percent of US sea scallops. The term "diver scallop" was popularized in the 1990's, and at that time dive scallops tended to be larger than drag-caught scallops. For a number of reasons that's no longer the case, but disreputable dealers often label any large scallop 'diver caught' to fetch a higher price. Some people think diver scallops are more sustainable than drag caught scallops, but it's not as cut and dry as you might think. All Maine scallops are sustainably harvested. The method of harvest doesn't matter: what matters is where they were harvested and how they were treated on their way to you.
Theoretically, a dry scallop is one that hasn’t been soaked in chemicals like sodium tripolyphosphate. But, as with the term “diver scallop”, no one actually polices who uses this term, so it’s abused so often as to be essentially meaningless. I’ve seen “dry scallops” that have clearly been soaked in chemicals, and I’ve heard of companies who call a scallop “dry” as long as it’s soaked for just a few hours as opposed to 24 hours or longer. Also, it’s important to remember that if you’re buying scallops from trip boats, they’ve been sitting on ice, absorbing water over the course of the trip.