‘Ugly’ Snails Once Ignored by Fishers Attain Lobster Status

More than 38 million individuals in the United States hunt and fish, but it’s hard to believe what fishers are calling a “prized catch” lately.

By Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA (Whelk) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA (Whelk) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you call them sea snails, scungilli, conch, or channeled whelks, these large, bristly marine snails — once relegated to old-school Italian restaurants and Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrations — are becoming a trendy food item.

Scungilli have the demise of their distant seafood cousins, such as lobster, to thank for their newfound popularity. They’re also a hot commodity in Asia, which is driving demand.

And fishermen in the United States are happy to provide the supply. “There is a fairly substantial market being supplied by fishermen in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas,” says Monte Rome, owner of Gloucester-based Intershell Seafood.

Domestic demand for the snails is also on the rise. Various upscale New York City restaurants have recently started featuring fresh whelks on their menus, but they are still best known as one of the seven seafood-based offerings that make up the Feast of the Seven Fishes. With roots in Southern Italy, this traditional meal is served by many Italians and Italian-Americans, particularly on Christmas Eve.

Scungilli have white flesh and a chewy texture, much like calamari. The most common preparation pairs the firm meat with garlic, sliced onion, and a dressing of lemon, oil, and vinegar.

Although the market for scungilli has been increasing, most eateries still have trouble attaining the delicacy.

“It’s almost impossible to find fresh scungilli these days,” said Frank Lombardi, owner of a seafood restaurant in Georgetown, Connecticut. “The texture has to be soft, it has to be cooked right … the only way you can really find good scungilli is in a can.”

Yet enough lobstermen are putting out traps to catch scungilli that some states, particularly in New England, have had to establish regulations to ensure that the whelk grow to adulthood and breed — lest they get fished into extinction.

In New Jersey, whelk fishing tops $1.4 million in annual value, while Massachusetts sees some $5.7 million worth of scungilli landing on its docks. And channeled whelks come in third, behind only blue crab and striped bass, on a list of Delaware’s most valuable catches.

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