Shellfish Pride

Togue Brawn, Down East Magazine

There’s no scallop like a Maine scallop, says Togue Brawn, who’s determined to get these shellfish the recognition they deserve.

[F]ew people know more about Maine scallops than Togue Brawn, the former Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) resource management coordinator who led the successful effort to restore the state’s scallop fishery a few years ago. Brawn continues to champion Maine scallops as the owner of Downeast Dayboat, an online fishmonger that purchases these winter treats directly from fishermen, then ships them within hours of harvest to home cooks and professional chefs around the country. We asked Brawn for the buzz on her favorite bivalve.

You’re a fisheries expert named Togue: how did that happen?

My father, a Maine Guide, took us on fishing trips, and I always wanted to catch a togue but I never did. Later, when I went to Duke down south, a bunch of us were discussing goals, and I said the only thing I really wanted to do was catch a togue. My friends had never heard of it — apparently, lake trout is only called togue in Maine. My real name is Kristin, but there are a lot of Kristins in the world and not too many Togues.

So what distinguishes Maine scallops from scallops harvested anyplace else?

Ninety-nine percent of US scallops come from the federal fishery, where large boats stay offshore for a week or more at a time. Those boats store their scallops in cloth bags buried in ice. As that ice melts, the scallops absorb the water. So when those boats offload their catch, they offload thousands of pounds of old water-logged scallops.

Maine produces only 1 percent of US scallops, and we do it very differently: Our fishermen go out and come back to shore on the same day. Our scallops are much fresher and, just like oysters, they have different flavor profiles depending on where they are harvested. A Cobscook Bay scallop tastes very different from a Casco Bay scallop or a Jonesport scallop. A Maine scallop is unlike anything you’re going to get anywhere else. Unfortunately, most of the time, these amazing scallops are trucked to out-of-state processors and mixed in with scallops from the federal fishery. It’s like pouring a bottle of Dom Pérignon into a vat of Barefoot Bubbly.

Which brings us to the unique economic value of Maine scallops.

During one of those meetings with fishermen — we were at the Jonesport-Beals Island high school library — Morris Alley said, “You know, I wouldn’t mind lowering our daily limit, but we never know what price we’re going to get.” I had this Oprah moment: Why are Morris Alley’s 50 pounds of four-hour-old scallops being paid a price set by the offshore fishery, where they’re bringing in 18,000 pounds of week-old scallops? Morris’ scallops are fresher and better, and he should be getting more money for that product.

So how do we make that happen?

We need more people doing what I’m doing, we need more restaurants offering Maine scallops — certainly Maine restaurants should be — and we need more people requesting them. Basically, we need more education. It’s a bit like those little cellophane-wrapped blocks of hard pink bricks that passed for tomatoes when I was growing up. If those were the only tomatoes you ever ate, and someone said you should pay more for a sun-ripened, July-picked tomato, you’d ask, “How different can it be?” When you taste it, you understand the difference.

Photo by Roman Józefiak

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