The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
NEW BEDFORD — Every weekday morning at 9, Cassie Canastra sits in a little conference room in a big warehouse on the edge of New Bedford’s harbor.
On the wall above her is a large video screen full of numbers, prices, and weights for batches of scallops. In front of her sit boat captains eager to sell their catch. And in the refrigerated warehouse out back are huge containers of scallops — as much as 1,500 pounds in a batch — that have been shucked at sea and loaded straight off the boats overnight, examined by buyers in the morning, and delivered to nearby processing plants by afternoon.
The numbers on the screen tick up and down, 5 cents at a time, as bids come in from fish buyers all over town. The captains grumble, or do quick math on their cellphone calculators, subtracting the costs of fuel and other expenses to see how much they’ll earn for their days at sea. The final price — $22.05 per pound on Friday morning for one 1,357-pound batch of large scallops fished off the coast of southern New Jersey — eventually translates into what you pay for scallops at a supermarket or restaurant.
“We basically set the price for scallops all over the world right here,” said Canastra, whose father and uncle founded the auction house in 1994. “That’s pretty cool.”
Indeed, this nondescript warehouse is a key point in a global scallop trade that courses through New Bedford, powering the city’s fishing industry and its economy in general. More than $350 million worth of the meaty shellfish land here in a typical year, making scallops, as New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell puts it, the “cash crop” of the most lucrative fishing port in the United States.
Mitchell can tick off the stats. There are more than 300 commercial fishing boats that call New Bedford home. Another 150 from out of state routinely dock in the harbor to sell their catch. The processing plants along the waterfront cut and package fish delivered from across the world. It creates thousands of jobs.
“We are to seafood what Omaha is to beef,” Mitchell said.
These days, the prime seafood is scallops. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Chewy and a little tough (if not properly cooked), they used to be fed to school children for lunch, noted Laura Orleans, executive director of the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center. In the 1950s, the city’s fishermen launched the New Bedford Scallop Festival — complete with mascots, Sammie and Susie Scallop — to drum up interest. The ‘90s brought a sharp decline in sea scallop stocks due to overfishing, which had regulators threatening to close key fishing waters.
The industry adjusted, though, finding abundant scallops in then-closed-off waters, agreeing to tighter restrictions on who could fish where, and shifting to dredges with wider rings — 4 inches in diameter instead of 2.5 — which meant smaller, younger scallops could slip through and keep growing. The bigger rings eventually meant bigger scallops, which diners find more appealing and thus fetch higher prices.
“Restaurants will pay more for larger meats,” said Orleans. “In the old days, you’d have 30 or 40 scallops per pound. Now you’ll even see ‘U2s,’ or ‘under 2s,’ just these huge scallops that are a half pound or more.”
Today, scallops are a foodie staple, and frequently on the menu at fine restaurants. And prices are at record highs, with scallops auctioning for $33 a pound at times earlier this year.
The revival of New Bedford’s scallop industry is an example of what can happen when fishermen and regulators work together to manage the ocean, said Eric Hansen, a longtime New Bedford scallop boat owner who serves on the board of the Fisheries Survival Fund, an industry-backed group that funds research into sustainable scalloping.
But it’s a delicate balance, and some here worry the arrival of offshore wind farms could overwhelm the scallop industry if turbines aren’t sited with the utmost care. Planners have listened to the fishermen, said Hansen, whose family has plied these waters for more than a century. But he’s not sure they really hear them, or understand how scallops and other animals beneath the water are just as valuable a resource as the wind that flies above it.
“Instead of energy, it’s food. It’s part of the national food supply,” he said. “And it’s a renewable resource. We’ve done a really good job of taking care of it and we should keep doing so.”
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