People in Maryland love their seafood. And why shouldn’t they? Maryland restaurants offer some of the best seafood caught fresh every day. They have award winning crab cakes and creative dishes to fit every taste. Local residents enjoy bringing home their catch to prepare at home as well as dining out at many of the waterfront restaurants. However, there is one variety that has been fighting hard to make a comeback. The Chesapeake Bay Scallops, once provided a thriving industry but had been struggling to keep from going extinct for many years.
What are Chesapeake Bay Scallops
Bay scallops live in the shallow waters of the lower Chesapeake Bay. They like to live in beds of eelgrass. They differ from other scallops in the fact that they tend to lie on the bottom of the ocean instead of burrowing under the sand.
The shells of bay scallops are a variety of colors. They range from grayish to purple to red and brown. They have 30 to 40 bluish colored eyes around the opening of their shells. However, unlike other scallops, bay scallops do not have a siphon (or foot). They grow to be around 3 inches in diameter.
The History of Chesapeake Bay Scallops
In the past bay scallops created a lucrative fishing industry. The scallops thrived along the east coast of Virginia. In fact the industry was doing so well that they were harvesting around one million pounds of scallops annually. So, what happened?
Back in the 1930’s a hurricane hit the east coast. The area experienced flooding in the 100 year flood plains. The hurricane, along with disease, took out almost all of the seagrass in the area. As a result the bay scallops struggled to survive in the area. Thus, the bay scallops were nearly extinct for over 75 years.
Bringing Back the Bay Scallops
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been taking on a major restoration project to bring back the seagrass that provide the bay scallops with a habitat. They have invested more than $6 million dollars into the project. And, the NOAA aren’t the only ones. They have been partnering with the Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management program and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Their goal is to help bring back the scallops population.
Together they initially planted 300 acres of eelgrass. It has since spread to around 5,000 acres. In 2009, once the eelgrass had been re-established, the groups brought in 100,000 bay scallops. They are estimating that within 10 years the population will have increased enough to reintroduce a scallop fishery into the Chesapeake Bay area.
When reintroducing the bay scallops back into the area they are placed in the water in cages to protect them from being picked off by their natural predators like birds or sea stars.
The NOAA Aren’t the Only Ones
The efforts to bring back the bay scallop population to the level that they can be fished and brought to the dinner table is not only taking place by large organizations. The Croxton cousins, who are co-owners of Rappahannock Oyster Co. are also working to reestablish the population of bay scallops. In the past the team successfully worked to help bring back the Eastern oyster and now farm both oysters and clams for restaurants.
When they discovered that Chesapeake Bay used to be home to a thriving scallop industry, they were all in. Last year around this time they announced that they were going to begin offering Chesapeake Bay scallops on their menu in the fall. The cousins had been working to cultivate small crops of scallops that could be used in their restaurants. Their event was a success and drew attention from many local food writers when they learned about the work that the cousins had been doing.
Things to Overcome
While we were hoping to see Chesapeake Bay Scallops on the menus of restaurants last fall, a few issues arose that pushed that date back. The Croxton cousins have run into several problems while working to farm the scallops. The bay scallops are different from others in the sense that they move about. When they were kept in floating cages they were picked off by birds. The scallops are now kept in oyster cages on the floor of the bay.
Trying to redevelop a commercial supply of scallops has proven to be much more complicated than oysters. The fresh scallops do not hold the same shelf life as oyster. They are more delicate and require greater care. The Croxtons have brought in specialists to assist with their production.
Another issue that restaurants that want to serve the bay scallops will need to overcome is getting their customers to want the scallops on the menu. These small and sweet scallops would be served on the half shell in many locations. Even local residents are unfamiliar with this type of scallop and preparation due to their lack of existence for almost a century. However, fish farmers like the Croxton cousins are working to spread the work and have already been marketing the idea for years.
There are chefs that are awaiting the first harvest that Rappahannock Oyster Co. has. They are more than willing to add the scallops as an entrée on their menu.
The Future of Chesapeake Bay Scallops
As more people become accustomed to the idea of eating a scallop complete on the half shell, more restaurants will add the item to their menu as it becomes available for purchasing commercially. However, the benefit of bringing back the Chesapeake Bay Scallop is greater than just to add to restaurant menus. While the scallops are delicious, they are also a benefit to the economy. The investments of groups like the NOAA are due to the desire to “improve the health of the marine environment and stimulate the ecotourism industry”.
Maryland residents will continue to see more information about the return of the Chesapeake scallops throughout the year. Before you know it these once almost extinct delicacies will be available at your favorite dining location.