STONINGTON — Except for a handful of divers in southern Maine, scallop season doesn’t start until at least Dec. 1 — unless you know the right people.
The people to know in this instance are Stonington scallop farmers Marsden Brewer and his son, Bobby. Last Thursday, they began taking orders for live scallops freshly harvested from their aquaculture lease sites in Penobscot Bay. The supply is relatively limited, but the product is something special.
“We are the only ones in Maine selling live, farm-raised scallops,” Brewer said Friday.
Divers and drag fishermen may not bring whole live scallops ashore, so even the freshest “scallops” aren’t the whole animal but only the adductor muscle that connects the upper and lower shells.
Landing live wild-harvest scallops is prohibited because of the risk that the animals’ digestive organs and roe — considered a delicacy in Japan, where scallops are farm-raised by the millions — might have dangerous accumulations of marine biotoxins such as the one that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.
The Brewers grow their scallops on “shelves” in collapsible, cylindrical plastic mesh bags suspended on two tiny sites near Stonington, The Department of Marine Resources requires that they follow “specific biotoxin monitoring” protocols for scallops that are to be sold live and whole.
A third-generation fisherman, the elder Brewer has been experimenting with farming scallops for a long time. More than 20 years ago, he began by collecting wild spat — tiny juvenile scallops — in mesh bags, the scattering them on the sea floor to grow and be dragged up at market size.
In 1999, Brewer traveled to Aomori in Japan as a member of a study mission organized by the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center. Including fishermen, scientists and representatives of the University of Maine Sea Grant program, the group visited Mutsu Bay in Aomori Prefecture, where the Japanese scallop is intensively cultivated both on longlines and on the seabed. The trip was largely focused on the methods used by Japanese farmers to collect spat from the water.
Two years ago, Brewer and his son returned to Aomori to study methods used to grow juvenile scallops to marketable size. The primary goal of the trip was to learn about a technique known as “ear-hanging” in which thousands of pairs of small scallops are hung on vertically suspended ropes using tiny plastic pins inserted through holes drilled in the flat “ears” that form part of the scallop shell hinge.
When Brewer first visited Japan, the ear hanging was highly labor-intensive and, consequently, costly. Drilling every hole, inserting every pin, attaching every scallop to the hanging line — each action was done by hand by a skilled fisherman.
Now, ear-hanging is accomplished using a machine with which farmers “load in the rope, load in the pins, load in the scallops and it all comes out the other end,” Brewer said describing the process not long after his return from Aomori two years ago.
Brewer is among a small group of fishermen organized as the Maine Aquaculture Co-op who are focused, in part, on improving scallop farming and harvesting techniques. Last weekend, though, he was busy on a float moored near the Stonington fish pier sorting and grading big, still-clacking live scallops to take back to Red Barn Farm and his fortunate customers.
To order Brewer’s scallops, call 367-5100, text 702-0068 or check out Red Barn Farm’s Facebook page.