Shell Game

Scallop fishermen, working like dogs, haul in Jersey’s most valuable seafood crop. A day on the job with the crew of the scallop boat Lucky Thirteen.

In the wheelhouse of the Lucky Thirteen, Captain Chris La Rocca contemplates the day of fishing ahead.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Dawn at sea, 52 miles east of Brigantine. The Lucky Thirteen has been cruising all night, leaving the dock at Viking Village at Barnegat Light around 1 am. The crew has taken turns sleeping and keeping watch over the autopilot, radar, sonar and GPS screens. The sea is calm and black, the sky charcoal. Slowly a smear of orange begins to lighten the horizon. Soon a crack of pure white appears. In a little while the sun, bright and strong, is lording it over the waters.

“It’s a bluebird day,” says Captain Chris La Rocca, wiry, with a salt-and-pepper beard and wraparound reflector shades. I ask him what he means.

“If there were trees out here,” he says, “there would be bluebirds in them.”

The date is Wednesday, August 23, 2011, the thick of scallop season. The Lucky Thirteen is a 114-ton, 70-foot-long, steel-hulled boat known as a scalloper. Suspended from its superstructure are two dredges for scooping scallops off the ocean floor. The dredges look like giant mattresses stripped to their wires and springs. If you attached headphones to them you could probably pick up extraterrestial radio stations.

The two deckhands, Chris Wilson, 24, and Steve LeVan, 23, roll out of their bunks, grab something to eat and appear on deck in T-shirts and shorts, looking strong and fit but a tad sleepy. Wilson, from Indian Mills, has been scalloping since he was 18. LeVan, from Manahawkin, is earning money to complete a business degree. At 7 am, La Rocca scrambles up to the dredge control panel behind the wheelhouse and gets ready for the first tow of the day.

Towing dredges across the ocean floor is what scallop boats do. A tow can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and cover several miles. There is smart towing and dumb towing. La Rocca, a veteran fisherman who’s been scalloping the last 10 years, knows the difference. Towing into the tide is dumb. As La Rocca explains, “You’re filling up with mud, not catching anything and wasting fuel.” Also dumb is trying to turn the boat too fast during a tow: “You’ll twist up the dredges.” Instruments that plot the topography of the ocean floor help scallopers decide where to tow (and government regulations aimed at preventing overfishing tell them where not to tow). But despite technology, figuring out where to tow is still done by the seat of the pants—not that fishermen spend much time on the seat of their pants.

If you’ve watched reality TV series like Deadliest Catch and Swords, you know that commercial fishing in brutal weather or for bruisers like swordfish is strenuous and dangerous work. Scalloping is a little less dramatic, but you still have to keep your wits about you, and the amount of unglamorous labor—much of it a recipe for sore backs, strained hamstrings and carpal tunnel syndrome—is intense. But scallopers like La Rocca love it. What did he do on his vacation last July? He went scalloping in the Georges Bank off Cape Cod.

“Up north,” La Rocca says, “the scallops are bigger, but the meat is tougher. Jersey scallops are the best in the world. We eat them raw all the time.” In fact, New Jersey and Massachusetts are responsible for the majority of the East Coast scallop catch—the leading scallop catch in the world.

Part of the reason scallopers are so devoted to their trade is that it’s lucrative. Scallops are New Jersey’s single most valuable seafood crop. In 2011, the scallop catch accounted for $142.4 million of the $195.2 million value of the state’s total seafood harvest at the dock. Yet scallops are just one of about 68 species categories that comprise the bulk of the catch. Underscoring its value, the meaty, mild scallop is only the fourth largest species by volume (14.6 million pounds) after menhaden (51.7 million pounds), a small, silvery fish that is turned into animal feed and commercial oils; shortfin squid (22.6 million pounds), largely bound for Europe and Asia; and Atlantic surf clams/ocean quahogs (22.2 million pounds), which go into fried clam strips, chowders and such. In round numbers, 14 million pounds of scallops are worth $142 million, while 97 million pounds of menhaden, squid and surf clams are worth $27 million.

The winch that raises and lowers the dredges may need to be lubed; it screams like something out of The Blair Witch Project. The dredges aren’t rigid but lie collapsed like piles of interlocked chains on the rear deck. Wilson and LeVan set about tugging at the 13-foot-wide dredge assemblies, each topped by a heavy steel crossbar. They attach the crossbar to the cables that will lower each dredge to the bottom. The winch screams, the dredges rise to their bed-spring fullness, and the deckhands help swing them past the sides of the boat so they can be lowered into the sea. The depth here is about 30 fathoms, or 180 feet. A big drum at the center of the boat begins spinning, quietly paying out cable.

There are two kinds of scallop fishing, both done with dredges. About 95 percent of boats belong to what is called the Full-Time Limited Access fleet. These boats go out for 4 to 10 days at a stretch, bringing back many thousands of pounds of scallops, all hand-shucked and iced on board. At landing, some of the scallops can be up to 10 days old. But, says Jimmy Gutowski, a boat owner and chairman of the Fisheries Survival Fund, a fishermen’s group that helps manage and implement government regulations, “a scallop properly cared for at a week old is beautiful, stunning, and in my opinion still sushi grade.”

Nonetheless, maximum cachet and price attach to the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) fleet. The IFQ is all about the dayboat—a word that shows up on a lot of menus next to the word scallops. Lucky Thirteen is a scallop dayboat operating out of Viking Village, a major docking and seafood-wholesaling operation at the north end of Long Beach Island. Dayboats go out, shuck and ice onboard, and return the same day. Their product is in markets and restaurants the next morning, which is why it brings the highest prices, as much as $25 a pound at retail seafood markets.

For the next 40 minutes or so, the Lucky Thirteen, its 12-cylinder diesel engine chugging, hauls the two dredges. We are in an offshore area known as the Hudson Canyon, which the National Marine Fisheries Service recently reopened to fishing after several years when the activity was banned, allowing the scallops to regenerate and reach maturity. Another area, called the Elephant Trunk, between Cape May and Delaware, has been periodically closed for the same reason, as have parts of virtually all the scallop-fishing grounds along the East Coast at one time or another. This rotational system keeps scallops healthy and plentiful.

It wasn’t always this way. Overfishing in the 1980s depleted scallop stocks to the point where “in the mid-’90s the fishery was in virtual collapse,” says Gutowski. Rotational closures and annual and daily quotas, embraced by the industry and enforced by the government, brought back the mouth-watering mollusk. “Scallops,” says Gutowski, “have been the poster child for fisheries management. Since 2000, it’s been lucrative, successful and a sustainable resource.” This isn’t just one man’s opinion. Last July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration increased catch limits for the remainder of 2011 and 2012 “because the Atlantic sea scallop resource is healthy and the fishery is operating sustainably,” wrote Patricia Kurkul, Northeast regional administrator, in announcing the changes.

The Lucky Thirteen stops towing and begins reeling in the dredges, a slower process than letting them out. Their pouches are full now. Slowly the angle of the cables becomes more vertical. At last the crossbars breach the surface, followed by the dripping, complex mesh of the dredges themselves. The dredges, bulging with what looks like sand and dirt, are lowered to the deck. Wilson and LeVan detach the outboard cables and fasten the winch line to the bottom of the dredges. The winch screams, the dredges are hoisted upside down and their heavy contents spill onto the flat, open deck.

Now the real work begins. In waterproof boots and rubberized gloves, La Rocca, Wilson and LeVan pull out plastic milk crates and wade into the two broad piles. What looks like sand and small flat rocks—much of the pile—largely turns out to be sand dollars, a plentiful burrowing creature that on close inspection looks like a round, flat, lichen-covered piece of leather. They will be thrown back after the scallops have been sifted out.

Bent over with legs spread wide, a position that you only sort of get used to after awhile, the three fishermen pick out the scallops and dump them in the milk crates, then drag the crates to the next part of the pile and paw through it with both hands, like dogs digging for a bone.

The scallops aren’t hard to find. The shells are big, flat and round (without any scalloped edges, by the way). A shell held in an open hand covers the palm and most of the fingers. The top shell is sandy burnt orange, the undershell white. Unlike clams and oysters, the halves are open a quarter inch or so. Scallops are the only bivalve that swim. They do so by closing and opening their shells, squirting out jets of water. They feed by filtering microorganisms out of the water. They grow fast, quadrupling their meat weight between ages three and five, on their way to an average lifespan of 20 years, if the scallopers don’t scoop them up first.

While the crew works, classic rock ’n‘ roll blasts from stern-facing speakers mounted outside the cabin. Right now “Take It to the Limit” by the Eagles is soaring into the ocean air. The time is 7:52 am.

The boat is rocking gently, no big deal, but I lean against the cabin to steady myself so I can scribble notes. La Rocca notices me and says, “Guaranteed cure for seasickness is to sit under the shade of a big old oak tree.” The guy has a thing about trees, perhaps not surprising for a man who never sees one during his working hours.

La Rocca is married and lives in Ship Bottom. He grew up on Long Beach Island, the oldest of three brothers. One of them is an electronics installer, the other a landscaper in Florida. His mother is a nurse, his father an electrician.

“I started clamming as a teenager,” he tells me later. “I started fishing in ’83, tried a couple years of college, bounced around different restaurants, long-lined for swordfish and tuna from Newfoundland to the equator until 1994. Then I spent four years working at a sailboat marina, learned a lot about boats. I took care of 400 sailboats in Barnegat. I got my captain’s license in ’98.” He often runs the Lucky Thirteen as a training vessel. “Bring new people to the industry that way,” he says. “I don’t have any kids to pass this on to.”

La Rocca commands the Lucky Thirteen, but he doesn’t own it. The boat belongs to Marion Larson, who is also an owner of Viking Village and the widow of John Larson, one of the founders of the operation.

In addition to a lot of meaningless sand dollars, the first tow has brought up one hulking, gate-mouthed, sharp-toothed monkfish, one of the uglier creatures of the deep. The fish has skin like bat wings, no apparent scales, and a broad, flat, peaked body that tapers to a long tail. “It’s also known as a mother-in-law fish,” La Rocca calls out helpfully.

What’s important is that, aside from a handful of small crabs and a couple of skate, the load contains no other bycatch. Bycatch is a fishing buzzword, a major no-no. For scallopers, the problem over the years has been scooping up quantities of yellowtail flounder and threatened and endangered Atlantic sea turtles along with their intended catch. The industry came up with what are called turtle chains to keep the dredge from capturing turtles on the sea floor. The modifications also keep out the yellowtail flounder. In another partnership between regulators and the industry, a dredge add-on is going into use this year that will prevent turtles swimming in the water column from being snatched as the dredge is hauled in.

In the bad old days before turtle chains, bycatch could get weird. One time La Rocca’s dredge snagged a 990-pound pure copper radiator. “We took it to a junkyard and got $3,200 cash for it,” La Rocca says. “You never know what the deep is going to cough up.”

This has been a productive tow, totalling about 70 bushels of unshucked scallops. On some boats, the captain doesn’t do the dirty work of picking and shucking (or “cutting,” in scallopers’ lingo). That isn’t the case on the Lucky Thirteen. Now the scallops are dumped into wooden troughs on each side of the boat, right against the gunwales and sheltered from the elements by the cabin roof.

La Rocca starts cutting on one side of the boat, Wilson and LeVan on the other. What they’re after is only the centrally placed adductor muscle, which opens and closes the shell, not the rest of the body or, in female scallops, the roe, though there used to be a market for that in Japan.

“There is a technique to this,” La Rocca says. That’s for sure. In three brisk flicks of his knife, he 1) severs the adductor muscle where it attaches to the top shell, 2) flicks overboard the top shell, with the entire loose, circular innards of the scallop attached, and 3) slices the adductor muscle off the bottom shell, dropping the shucked scallop into a bucket and flinging the shell back into the deep. Elapsed time: about four seconds. The speakers are banging out Creedence Clearwater’s “Rollin’ on the River.”

Our photographer, Colin Archer, an avid fisherman himself, tries his hand. Physically adept, Archer finishes his first scallop in the time it takes La Rocca to do four. Not bad. He perseveres, gaining speed, though sometimes nicking the adductor muscle, not removing it cleanly, a waste of a good scallop. La Rocca offers me one to eat. The texture is firm, the taste clean and delicious.

Cutting scallops by the dozen is fun. Cutting them by the hundreds or, in this case, thousands, is mind numbing, not to mention tough on the hands. And because of the position of the wooden troughs, you have to work standing up. “I go to a chiropractor,” La Rocca says. “I also sit in a hot tub and my wife massages my hands. Some guys need that carpal tunnel operation.”

Cutting is also messy. Over on his side of the boat, deckhand Wilson says, with a laugh, “I have soooo many T-shirts with belly stains.” Quips photographer Archer, “Chicks love it.”

There’s no market for the innards, which is why they go overboard. But they are far from inedible. La Rocca says he sometimes fries them up with Tabasco or other fiery sauce and serves them to his wife as “hot lips.”

The work continues with transferring the scallops to big red plastic mesh buckets, rinsing them with seawater and stowing the buckets in the iced storage chest near the stern. Meanwhile, the dredges went out a second time at 9:21 am and were reeled in at 9:36. This second haul is skimpy, ultimately yielding only 5 bushels. It isn’t an exact science.

At 10:15 the crew breaks for lunch in the galley. The fare is hot dogs and beans, courtesy of La Rocca, and chicken thighs baked with sliced potatoes, courtesy of his wife. Water and soft drinks are available, but no alcohol or coffee. Work resumes as the speakers blare Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

The last act before heading home is packing the scallops in heavy muslin bags that hold 47 to 50 pounds apiece and returning them to the big ice chest. It’s a long trip back. The deckhands can finally relax. Asked what he wants to do on his day off the next day, Wilson responds, “I want to party with my friends, I want to ride my quad, I want to hang out with my girlfriend.” She is a preschool teacher, he says.

At the dock at 4:30, the three unload the muslin bags, weigh them and pack them in ice in cardboard cartons. The day’s catch comes to a disappointing 459 pounds, well short of the 600-pound limit. They will receive checks from Viking Village in about a week. The price at the dock varies with the market, but at the average of $9 a pound, their day’s work has fetched $4,131.

Expenses come off the top, fuel being the biggest. (Viking Village, which makes 2,000 tons of ice a day, provides it free to boats that use its docks. The reasoning is that if fishermen had to pay for ice, they might skimp on it, threatening the quality of the catch.) As captain, La Rocca gets an extra percentage off the top. (His duties include boat maintenance as well as piloting and responsibility for the craft.) Half of what’s left goes to the boat’s owner, Larson. The other half is divided equally among La Rocca, Wilson and LeVan.
The scallops are loaded on trucks destined for places like Nassau Street Seafood in Princeton, Steve and Cookie’s restaurant in Margate, and restaurants in New York City and as far away as Boston.

It’s been a long and instructive day. I’ve enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. It’s a little too repetitous for me, even though I didn’t do any of the actual work. For La Rocca, it never gets old. He loves bait and tackle shops: “I’m like a kid in a candy store.” And when he isn’t fishing, he daydreams about tending a rod and reel—while lying on a Jersey beach, of course.

Click on the links below to read more from our Seafood Lovers’ Guide:

Sea Power
For quality and quantity, the ocean is one of the Garden State’s richest gardens.

Delights From The Deep
Do you think the wonders of the Shore end at bodysurfing distance from the beach? Of course not. Another world entirely begins there—the cornucopian world of Jersey seafood. Here is a foretaste of the riches that Jersey fishermen, plying coastal waters, bring to our docks on a daily basis.

Our Favorite NJSeafood Restaurants
Seafood is a given on virtually every restaurant menu, but some places pride themselves on providing a broad range of the very freshest catch. Here are some of our favorites, with a few words on what to expect. If none of these float your boat, there’s always sushi.

The Whale’s Tale
You have to get there pretty early to beat Fair Lawn’s Peter Panteleakis (a.k.a. Mr. Whale) to the best seafood at the Fulton Fish Market.

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