Diver scallops have been all the rage on menus across the country. To better understand what diver scallops are and how they are actually harvested, ChefTalk.com tracked down veteran scallop diver Tim Hunt from Deer Isle, Maine. Tim has been collecting scallops from the icy Atlantic for the last 20 years.
ChefTalk: So tell us, what exactly is a "diver scallop".
Tim Hunt: A diver scallop is exactly what the name means--scallops that are collected from the ocean by divers hand-picking each one. The majority of the scallops on the market are harvested by boats that drag heavy chain sweeps across the ocean floor. The diver scallops are less gritty than the dragged ones. Diver scallops are also a much more ecologically friendly way of harvesting scallops.
CT: How exactly does one dive for scallops?
TH: A diver jumps into water and descends to the ocean floor. One by one, he picks the scallops off the rocks. It is sometimes difficult to find them when the water visibility is diminished--sometimes only 2-3 feet! Responsible scallop divers only take the big ones and leave the smaller scallops alone until the grow into a larger size. The scallops are then placed into scallop bags. When the bag is full, the diver signals the boat above to hoist up the sack and send an empty one down. I stay under water for one tank which is about 45-60 minutes.
CT: How many scallops can you harvest in one hour?
TH: Now, I get about the equivalent of 13 lbs. scallops for each tank. When I was younger, I could dive 6 times (or 6 tanks of oxygen) a day and harvest about 100 lbs. of cleaned scallops in that time. Now the most I can do is to dive 3 times in a day--the equivalent of 3 oxygen tanks.
CT: How deep do you need to dive to find scallops?
TH: You can find scallops at many different depths. These days I dive 45-50 feet down to get the scallops. In the past, I dove as deep as 100 feet to find them.
CT: Are the better scallops found in deeper waters?
TH: Kind of. What makes a good scallop is less a matter of depth and more a matter of water current. Where there is a healthy current, the scallops grow the best and the fastest since the water current brings them an abundance of food. Scallops from areas with good water current also have a firm flesh with very little, if any grit. If the current is poor, the scallops are often soft and grainy. I have in the past occasionally found quality scallops in as little as 8 feet of water. In reality, what happens now is that the people who dive for sea urchins are taking all the scallops in the 25 feet water. We then need to go deeper to find scallops.
CT: Is there a season for scallops?
TH: Absolutely. We can legally dive for scallops from Nov. 1- April 15. You can drag for scallops year round as long as you go at least 3 miles out from the shoreline. Often, these scallops are gray in color. They are also frequently soaked in a solution to preserve them. This frustrates me as it really damages the product. It also damages me because if the reputation of the scallop suffers, then it hurts everyone's business.
CT: Out of curiosity, what is the biggest scallop you have ever harvested?
TH: I once found a scallop that weighed in at 3/4 lb. A friend of mine once got one that was a pound. Quite frankly, in Maine, most people consider the smaller scallops (15-25 count--meaning 15-25 pieces per pound) to be the best eating scallops. The larger scallops often don't have as nice and firm a texture as these do.
CT: What about the dangers involved in diving for scallops?
TH: The only real danger is decompression or the benz. That can be a serious thing. Only twice in 20 years have I seen a large shark, but they were very uninterested in me. And then there is arthritis which I now have in all my joints. But I just love diving.
CT: I have heard a lot in the last few years about the dangers of depleting the oceans. Are we in danger of fishing out the scallop population?
TH: We've already done that. I've been screaming bloody murder for 20 years. In general people have not looked to the future, but only been concerned about the present. They have had the attitude that the future would sort itself out. In Japan for instance, they are careful to be constantly replenishing their stocks. Here, the divers for a long time used to just take the big scallops so that there would always be plenty. You could literally harvest from the same location year after year Dragging the bottom has not only hurt the scallop population, but all the shellfish as these chain sweeps tear up everything in their path.