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JBF Taste of America


Mortal Combat: Pink Scallops

A Northwest delicacy is back

There's nothing so satisfying as David taking on Goliath and winning. Especially when the victory is so delicious. In the case of pink (or "singing" scallops), there are two Davids: Joe Stephens, dive master out of Bellingham, and Nick Jones, owner of Jones Family Farms on Lopez Island, throwing rocks for seven years. How did these two get together and beat the giant? It's quite a story.

First some background on these scallops. Pretty in pink, delicious, and rare. Rare because they are very difficult to harvest as they prefer to live in deep water, 60-90+ feet, and tidal-flow areas (where water rushes). They are fast growing, but die young, within 3-5 years. Unlike most scallops, they swim; as water enters their shell, they can squirt it out a tube on their back hinge to move forward. They glue themselves to rock pinnacles with their byssal thread, ride out the tide, then sever their own thread and swim around, allowing them to hunt their own food. Their preferred living area is tiny, one of the narrowest area species in the world, and in that area, they are abundant: San Juan Gulf Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They can be found in small numbers from Southern California to the Gulf of Alaska, but only in our area are they found in harvest-able numbers. Divers can stay down from 50 minutes to an hour at a time, maybe 4 hours a day. In deep water, it's like being blindfolded. Most divers won't do it. As Joe says, "Last year I hired 13 divers from one of the top diving schools in the nation. Not one stayed. It's a tremendous amount of work."

On top of the difficulty of harvesting, they also pick up PSP or red tide. Feeding on cystic phytoplankton, they can pick up toxin at any time, any place. Consequently, each harvest must be tested before it can be sold. Yet they have a brief shelf life and, like all commercial shellfish in Washington, must be kept in certified water until testing is complete. Jones Family Farms owns a shellfish farm, so all harvested scallops are held in live tanks until tests show they are clean.

Pinks had a fishery and were harvested from the early '80s to the late '90s. Jim Ranson was the pioneer scallop diver; when he chose to quit due to low seafood prices and continually-growing regulations, the fishery went dormant: open but not used.

Why take on something this difficult? As mentioned, the outcome is fantastic. There's also the wonderful fact that it can't be overfished. Millions of eggs can be found in one scallop. In four weeks Nick and Joe have harvested 5000 pounds of product off 2-3 rock pinnacles, hoping to produce 200,000 pounds a year. "We're touching maybe 1/10th of 2% of what's out there," says Joe. Plus, there should be profit involved; this will never be an inexpensive seafood.

And there is the challenge factor. "I've been a commercial fisherman for 20 years. I also own Northwest Solutions in Bellingham, distributing industrial, institutional, cleaning, and maintenance supplies. Many commercial fisherman have other jobs to fill in around the season," explains Joe. "I also get bored easily and am always looking for something new. There are easier ways to make a living than diving, but when I'm told something can't be done, I'm obsessed with making it happen. Had we been told 'sure, go ahead,' I probably would have been bored within a month and let it go." Joe used to work with Jim Ranson doing other commercial dive work, and wanted to re-start the Pink Scallop fishery.

For Nick, it's about a love of seafood, a particular love of the pink scallop ("it's the top tier of seafood anywhere and it should become an iconic Northwest seafood") and "not letting them win." Local writer Sara Dickerman asked Nick what happened to pink scallops. That bug in his ear is what started his quest. He and his wife Sara produce and source unusual things and sell to restaurants. He called the State and asked if the fishery was still open. They said yes, then closed it "by emergency order." "In Washington, fish is about politics: conservation groups, sport fisherman, tribal rights. Once I called, the State felt there was no upside; it was something they'd have to be accountable for and manage. It was easier to close the fishery." They fought it even though Nick and Joe are absolutely committed to diver and food safety, and sustainability.

Pinks done with the Dahlia Lounge touch

Eventually, Nick and Joe became aware that "there was someone else out there" trying to do the same thing. The State wouldn't put them together citing privacy reasons, but eventually someone let it slip that 'you should talk to Nick.' Joe had to figure out who Nick was, but they managed to find each other.

Dealing with government is what it is and we won't go into everything, but obstacles were constant. At one point, someone told Nick 'it isn't worth my time.' "I thanked him for his honesty." Two actions turned things around. One, Nick had a discussion going on with the State about a different issue. He was asked what would make that issue disappear. He told them opening the scallop fishery would do it. So, he gave up one thing to gain another. And Joe called the State, told them he was going fishing and where he'd be so that he could be arrested and get the issue in court where it belonged.

Ever positive, Nick says, "The important take-away is that the fishery is open and the people who opposed it are now all very happy for our success." The joint venture between Joe and Nick is producing pinks for the market; you can find them at restaurants (see website below) and a few markets. They plan to continue working together to bring urchin, European oysters, and more to market.

Connie Adams/April 2017

Jones Family Farms
1934 Mud Bay Road
Lopez Island, WA 98261
360-468-0533

www.jffarms.com


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