Bad for fishermen, good for cooks: Early season bay scallop prices slump
Consumers are happy, many scallopers are not, and Island seafood retailers are busy in the wake of an unexpected 40-to 50-percent drop in early season wholesale and retail scallop prices.
Retail prices in the $13-$14 per pound range this week mark an increase from lows of $11 per pound 10 days ago, a price that had consumers scrambling to buy large orders and freeze them. Retail prices last year topped out at $21 a pound, Island markets said. Prices paid scallopers reached a low of $6 a pound two weeks ago, half the 2008 rate.
Plummeting Island prices result from massive - and unusual - competition from the Chatham on Cape Cod and from Long Island, New York fisheries, plus a strong Nantucket harvest. Prices also reflect declining demand from recession-buffeted restaurants wary about pricey entrees, such as scallops, market-watchers say.
Shellfish industry veterans say that Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket have been the market price setters for at least a decade, but the combination of large scallop harvests at Chatham and on Long Island has changed the balance of price setting power this year.
"We've dictated prices for many years, and it's been good for fishermen but not good for consumers," Louis Larsen of The Net Result in Vineyard Haven said. "This year, Chatham had a terrific natural set, probably for the first time in 25 years, and the Long Island (N.Y.) scallop fishery is supposedly very good this year."
Island shellfish constables report a slight decline in commercial licenses issued this year but lots of activity in Edgartown, Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs. "We've got about 40 guys out there today," Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall reported Monday morning.
In Aquinnah, there may not be enough adult scallops to warrant a season.
Chilmark shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer reports little action on Menemsha and Quitsa ponds. "With a two-bushel limit, low prices and small scallops, it doesn't pay," he said.
In addition to strong supply, competitors allow large daily harvests. Long Island communities typically have a 10-bushel daily limit, and Nantucket, which has reportedly issued 50 more licenses this year than last, has a five-bushel daily limit. Most Vineyard towns limit commercial fishermen to three bushels per day.
Which adds up to good deals for consumers. "I'm getting five- to 20-pound orders from retail customers. They tell me they're freezing them, even using them for gifts," said Stanley Larsen, proprietor of the Menemsha Fish Market.
Mr. Larsen's down-Island cousins report similar retail demand at their stores.
Dan Larsen reported that for his Edgartown Seafood customers on fixed incomes, reduced scallop prices are a ray of recessionary sunlight. "I have customers who would order a quarter or a half pound last year," he said. "You could tell they would have liked to buy more. This year they're happy to be able to afford a pound."
At The Net Result, Dan's brother Louis Larsen is charging $13 per pound plus 50 cents a pound for custom freeze packing. "We're getting customers asking us to vacuum-pack five or ten pounds for freezing," he said.
The boon for consumers comes at a cost to fishermen. "The market opened at $14 several weeks ago, dropped quickly to $8 and as low as $6," said Hillary Conklin, the acting shellfish constable in Tisbury. She has issued 22 commercial licenses and 480 family licenses to date, a slight decline from prior years.
"Scallops are good, prices are not. It's a demand issue, not a supply issue," Ms. Conklin said, a view shared by many observers. Interviews with Island shellfish industry professionals indicate a market glut.
Nicholi Sullo was cooking at Rocco's restaurant in Vineyard Haven last week. "I'm not fishing this year because of price," he said. "I scalloped last year and got $12 to $14 a pound. I figured the lowest it could go was $10. But at $6? No way."
Ryann Gold of Vineyard Haven has been scalloping for four or five years. She scalloped the first two weeks of this season, but last week, she was back working in her gardening business. "Prices are way down," she said. "If the price doesn't go up, I guess I might start my winter vacation early."
Ms. Gold said that scallopers were getting $15 per pound early this month, but the price soon plummeted to single digits. "Our lowest price all last year was $9 in December and $8 for small scallops after Christmas. I have my own boat and shuck them myself. If the price gets to $12 a pound, I'll be out there."
By the numbers - scalloping licenses
Edgartown, Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs report better than average scallop fishing, although Edgartown is the only Island community reporting an increase in commercial licenses. Constable Paul Bagnall reports 68 licenses sold, nearly double the 2008 total.
Tisbury acting shellfish warden Hillary Conklin reports 22 licenses sold, even with last year. Warden David Grunden reports that Oak Bluffs has 16 commercial fishermen, down two or three from last year, reflecting the absence of several fishermen who moved out of town.
Chilmark has issued 32 commercial licenses to date, down a handful from 2008, Constable Isaiah Scheffer reports. Aquinnah may not open a commercial season this year because of a lack of scallops in Menemsha Pond. Aquinnah's season always opens several weeks after other Island towns, but selectmen are waiting for evidence of a suitable prospective harvest before approving season dates, town administrator Jeff Burgoyne said last week. West Tisbury does not have a scallop season.
Nearly 1,900 recreational and family shellfish licenses have been issued Island-wide to date, down slightly from 2008.
Robbie Coad of Edgartown has been fishing for more than 35 years, and he takes the long view. "Sure I wish prices were higher," he said. "Eight dollars a pound recently was the lowest price I remember in a long, long time. But in '72 or '73, when I started, we got $2.75 a pound. Prices have always fluctuated, whether it's scallops, tuna, or striped bass. My job is to catch 'em and hope things change. I go out every day. I can't miss a day or I can't make money. You can make money if you shuck them yourself."
Mr. Coad is also watching the supply side and awaiting the arrival of traditional holiday price increases. "Usually the highest prices are between Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said. " I would think low prices might open the restaurant business up some. We'll see how the Chatham, New York, and Nantucket catch holds up."
Island retailers are cautious about their wholesale business as a result of over supply and decreased demand from restaurants. "I'm only buying what I can sell here," Dan Larsen said flatly. "A friend in the New York wholesale business told me that Tavern On The Green, a high end Central Park restaurant, has replaced scallops with a macaroni, ham and cheese dish. Lots of people who were buying $100 lunches are brown-bagging these days."
While there may be some panic in the market, there are price increases in the offing., according to Louis Larsen. "Prices will only go up from here," he said. "Chatham and Long Island are about done, and we're entering the holiday season when prices peak."
"The economy is definitely a factor, and scallops are primarily a restaurant product," said Rick Carney, shellfish biologist and director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group. "It's a buyer's market, but that could change. When word gets out that prices are low, demand - and prices - may increase."
Mr. Karney noted that "creamers," part-time fishermen who work the first few weeks of the season, would exit the market soon, reducing the supply glut.
Echoing Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden, Mr. Karney said. "When that first blast of cold, rainy weather shows up, the number of fishermen usually drops down." He noted that seed sets at the shellfish group's Oak Bluffs hatchery were strong for a second consecutive year. "We've got two million scallop and quahog seeds in the water. You can't predict Mother Nature, but next year could be strong."
Meanwhile, Island consumers are busily bagging shellfish bargains while fishermen and retailers soldier on. "One thing's certain. You can't make any money tied up at the dock," Stanley Larsen said.