Mollusk morsels:

🕔Jan 28, 2008

Some like them hotate (sushi-style), some like them caramelized on the edges and slightly seared. Me, I love my scallops soaked in wine and cream. But in an age when world demand for seafood is ever more insatiable, the need for ocean-friendly cuisine is earth-shatteringly real.
Is it possible to find a sinless scallop when the sublime white flesh conjures delights more hedonistic than even the briny silk of an oyster? Think of Venus rising from the sea — was it the nubbly, asymmetrical shape of an oyster that carried the goddess of love up from the depths? Nay, she emerged from the waves caressed by the widespread, pink lines of a scallop shell.
Sure, oysters have that centuries-old libidinous appeal—Casanova was said to have eaten five dozen of the slippery things for breakfast—but my hedonistic tastes tend toward deeper creatures. If you live in the right area (oyster beds line the south coast, too bad for us northerners), anyone with a bucket and shucking knife can gorge themselves on oysters at low tide, but scallops prosper far beneath the turbulent seas, thus requiring more complicated harvest methods.
There are two kinds of scallops on the market: small, succulent bay scallops, and the larger, more lusty swimmers known as sea scallops. “Diver scallops” may be the ultimate in de rigueur dining, and by their moniker sound like they’ve been hand plucked from the sea by scuba-suited harvesters, but actually most wild scallops are dredged—that is, scraped from the ocean floor. Damage to the sea floor, concerns about polluted waters, over-fishing, and red tides could dampen a mollusk-lover’s ardour, but a homegrown solution is on the horizon.

Sustainable shellfish

Brian Kingzett of Blue Revolution Consulting Group, a firm committed to ensuring shellfish aquaculture is built on sustainable practices, says that 40 per cent of all scallops (1.2 million metric tonnes a year are produced worldwide) come from farms in Japan and China. With the United States predicting a shortfall of 500,000 tonnes in seafood markets by 2020 and more than 79 percent of European consumers expressing their concerns about the environmental impacts of seafood, shellfish aquaculture in BC may be poised to hit the water swimming.
If the word aquaculture brings up nasty connotations of salmon swimming in their own excrement after being fed hormones, antibiotics and food colouring, I’ve been assured that shellfish aquaculture is a whole different kettle of fish.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, shellfish growing on ropes in ocean bays may actually clean the water as the animals eat up excess plankton. And since shellfish need pristine water in order to thrive, farmers could become the best advocates for the ocean’s health.
Shellfish aquaculture is so okay that it has become one of the pillars of the sustainable economic plans of communities in the 15-million-acre area known as the Great Bear Rainforest where an agreement between first nations, the provincial government, environmentalists and the forest industry has protected nearly five million acres from any resource extraction.
Environmental groups have also amassed $200 million from philanthropists and conservation investors, along with provincial and federal governments, for eco-friendly ventures on the north and central coasts of BC.
Blue Revolution has been part of an ambitious plan known as the North-Central Coast Haida Gwaii Shellfish initiative since 2003. The project, driven by a coalition of the Tsimshian Stewardship Committee and Coastal First Nations Turning Point Initiative, has nine pilot projects underway at sites up and down the coast including Metlakatla, Lax Kw’alaams, Kitkatla and Hartley Bay.
On Haida Gwaii, the Old Massett and Skidegate Band Councils have workers in training and have, since fall 2007, officially seeded their pilot sites with 500,000 baby scallops.
Old Massett economic development officer John Disney says the scallops’ survival rate is the best on the coast. “They’re growing like crazy and are now two and a half times the size they started at,” he says.
Scallops thrive in the colder northern waters, says Kingzett’s colleague Larry Greba. Farmers have had good results with oysters too, but oyster farmers are struggling to survive as world supply exceeds the demand.
Farmed scallops are often a cross between the local weathervane variety and a Japanese species, meaning a hybrid is being introduced into the ocean. The David Suzuki Foundation has noted this as a concern in a report titled Sustainable Shellfish: Recommendations for Responsible Aquaculture. I’ve heard mumblings of more concern, but just as many exhortations that in this case, it’ll be all right.
Financing is yet to be finalized, and there are other hoops to jump through before the coast shellfish initiative really takes off. Disney and the others are all working on the processing and marketing end of things, as well as the potential for joint ventures.
The scallops themselves take 18 to 24 months to mature, so it will be around 2009 before I or any other devotee will be eating these sustainably-sourced scallops.

Right place at the right time

Luckily, those of us on Haida Gwaii have other options to tide us over.
One of the few big scallop beds in BC lies just off the northern beaches of Graham Island, and when the winds and tides are right, the gods of the sea toss bucket-loads of the snapping creatures onto the sand.
There are tales of people shoveling them up and filling the backs of several pick-up trucks. Others trail behind the overloaded vehicles and rescue those that have flown into the ditches on the washboard road as enthusiasts race home to their sizzling pans.
I’m told that there’s no point in leaving these water-abandoned scallops on the beach, as they won’t survive until the tide comes back in. How much more ethical could harvesting be?
Of course, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and when you live on the other end of the island, an hour-and-a-half drive from the bounty, complications arise.
On a cold winter’s day after the wind blew in the requisite direction for 24 hours, my friend and I decided to give it a try. We loaded three adults, a child, two dogs and countless buckets into the truck. More friends were coming for dinner and we were confident in our food-gathering ways—if not scallops, then cockles at least would be on the table that night.
But by the time we got onto the beach there was not a living sea creature in sight. Many other trucks were already on scallop patrol, and they’d either run off with the riches, or perhaps there was nothing to find that day.
But aside from the wanton waste of fossil fuels for a fruitless day, all was not lost.
A small commercial scallop and oyster farm already exists in the cold northern waters of Haida Gwaii. All I had to do was walk down to the local organic grocer and look in the freezer. They weren’t cheap, but I bought a package of fist-sized (okay a child’s fist-sized) scallops harvested in the inlet I look out upon every day.
Having supported two, perhaps three local businesses with my purchase (there was a fish packer in there somewhere), my quest was finally complete. I poured a warm vinaigrette over the sweet, fleshy, barely-seared morsels, lit the candles, and heaved a sigh of pleasure as I savoured a sinless scallop in the comfort of my own home.

Find out about the ethics of eating your favourite seafood…
by visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website at
Also check out Seafood Choices Alliance at
David Suzuki has more information about oceans and sustainable fishing at

More scallop sources:
Iles de la Madeleine fishers have been harvesting wild scallops, along with lobsters, snow crabs and other bounties from the sea for centuries. They have also begun to look at sustainable shellfish aquaculture.