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Scallops, Uslurping the Oyster?

Smart aquaculture solutions are soaring.

By Heather Ramsay 15 Mar 2006 |
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Some like them hotate, some like them caramelized on the edges and slightly seared. Me, I love my scallops soaked in wine and cream, too. But in an age when world demand for seafood is ever more insatiable, the need for ocean-friendly cuisine is earth-shatteringly real.

I, like any ethical hedonist, (isn't it fun that we can so easily toss out such contradictions) try hard to keep my indulgences in check. But really all I want is a sinless scallop.

What could be more sublime? Think of Venus rising from the sea - was it the nubbly, unsymmetrical 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.

You may be thinking that a true hedonist would pine for the briny silk of an oyster on her tongue. Think of the centuries-old aphrodisiacal appeal. The libidinous Casanova was said to have eaten five dozen of the slippery things for breakfast, but still, I prefer the scallop.

It's hard to imagine the scallop usurping (or should we say uslurping) the prestige of an oyster on the half shell, but someday, sheer shellfish snobbery may prevail.

Shucking democracy

After all, oysters were never reserved for the upper crust, alone. Historically, anyone armed with a bucket and a shucking knife could gorge herself on the rubbery creatures. Wild oysters, once plentiful in tidal zones surrounding great cities like New York and London, fed the masses, along with the hoi polloi until excessive demand and pollution led to unhealthy populations and eating.

Scallops are deeper creatures. They prefer to grow and prosper below the wave action of turbulent seas and therefore require a much more complicated method of harvesting. Diver scallops may be the ultimate in de rigueur dining, but most wild scallops are dredged - read: scraped from the ocean floor.

There are two kinds of scallops on the market, small, succulent bay scallops and the larger, lustier swimmers known as sea scallops. Damage to the sea floor, concerns about over fishing, polluted waters and red tides could dampen a mollusk lover's ardour, but a homegrown solution may be on the horizon.

Brian Kingzett of Blue Revolution Consulting Group, a firm committed to ensuring shellfish aquaculture is built on sustainable practices, says that 40 percent of all scallops (1.23 million metric tonnes a year are produced worldwide) come from farms in Japan and China. With the United States predicting a shortfall of 1.1 billion pounds 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.

Pristine farming

If 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 five million acres from resource extraction.

Environmental groups have also amassed a potential $200 million from philanthropists, 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 Tshimsian Stewardship Committee and Coastal First Nations Turning Point Initiative, has already set up more than 20 pilot projects at sites up and down the coast.

Up and swimming

Scallops have been thriving in the colder northern waters, says Kingzett's colleague Larry Greba. They've had good results with oysters, too, but oyster farmers are struggling to survive as the supply exceeds the demand, says Greba. So scallops win again.

Farmed scallops are often a cross between the local weathervane variety and a Japanese species, meaning a hybrid is being introduced into our oceans. 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. Greba says the huge scallops I love take 18 to 24 months to mature, so it will be around 2007 before I, or any other devotee will be eating these potentially sustainably-sourced scallops.

Fresh sources

Luckily, I've got other options to tide me 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 from huge wind throws and filling the backs of several pick-up trucks. Others trail behind the overloaded vehicles and rescue animals that have flown into the ditches on the washboard road as enthusiasts race home to their sizzling pans.

There is no point in conserving these water-abandoned scallops I'm told, as they won't survive on the beach long enough for the tide to come 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's drive from the bounty, complications ensue.

On a cold winter's day after the wind blew in the requisite direction for 24 straight 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 abilities - if not scallops, cockles at least would be on the table that night.

Giant solutions

By the time we got onto the beach, what with stopping for chips, delivering another small child back to his mother and navigating the very icy Tow Hill Road, there was not a living sea creature to be seen.

Many other trucks were on scallop patrol already and either they'd run off with the riches or there was nothing to find that day.

Aside from the wanton waste of fossil fuels for a fruitless day, all is 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) 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 warm vinaigrette over the sweet, fleshy barely seared things, lit the candles and heaved a sigh of sinless pleasure as my boyfriend and I savoured scallops in the comforts of our own home.

Heather Ramsay, based in Queen Charlotte City, is a contributing editor to The Tyee.


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