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The Facts and Fictions of Diver Scallops

Scallops
Photo Credit: Maine DMR

If you're someone who likes fine foods (and if you're reading this post you're likely in that category), you've probably seen diver scallops on menus at fine establishments across the country.  So I'm curious: 

What do you think the term "diver scallop" means?  It may seem like an obvious question, but trust me: it's not.

Do you think a diver scallop is a scallop harvested by a diver?  I mean, that's obviously what it SHOULD mean, right?? 

Sadly, that is NOT what it means.  At least not any more. Chefs and consumers across the country are being duped.  A lot.  I mean A WHOLE LOT.  I'd estimate less than 5% of scallops purported to be diver scallops were actually harvested by divers.  That's crazy, right?  Yes, indeed it is.  To find out how and why so many Americans are being duped, read on....

How it all started:

In the late 1980's seafood pioneer Rod Mitchell of Portland Maine-based Browne Trading began marketing Maine Diver Scallops to the country's top chefs.  These scallops were hand-harvested during Maine's winter scallop season and they had all the qualities that make Maine Dayboat Scallops so delicious: they came from Maine's cold, clean nearshore waters, they were harvested in small quantities, brought to shore quickly and never touched fresh water ice.  But their superior flavor wasn't their only distinctive quality: they were also unusually large.  Divers often targeted the rocky patches left untouched by draggers, which meant they usually harvested older, larger scallops (under 15 per pound).

Back then the Federal (offshore) fishery was managed under a very different system and most scallops coming across the dock were quite small (30 meats per pound).  So when chefs and diners tasted large, delectable Maine Diver Scallops, they began to connote larger scallops with higher quality.    

Maine Diver Scallops were delicious and their presence on a menu signaled sophistication, opulence and environmental friendliness.  So by the early 2000's discerning chefs across the country were clamoring for them and many dealers were offering them. 

At the same time, something unusual was happening in the waters off New England: closed areas designed to resuscitate dwindling groundfish stocks had failed to fulfill that goal, but they'd prompted explosive growth in the scallop population.

 

The fisheries management geek in me would love to regale you with the details of how this happened, but I'll save that for another post.  For the purposes of this discussion, you should just note that all of a sudden there were a LOT more scallops in the waters off New England. Making the most of a good thing, fisheries managers implemented management improvements, including measures designed to allow scallops to grow to full size before being harvested. That meant that large scallops were no longer uncommon. In fact, rotational closed areas encouraged Federally permitted fishermen to specifically target large scallops.

Ironically (and completely coincidentally), at around the same time, Maine's resource was headed in the opposite direction.

Diver scallops had become very popular.  So chefs were still demanding them. And just as the supply of prized Maine Diver Scallops was drying up, dealers were handed a plentiful supply of large scallops from the offshore fleet.  How fortunate, right?  Well, sort of?  Maybe?

Soon large scallops from the Federal fishery were on plates at fine restaurants across the country.  Many were labeled diver scallops: sometimes because of an honest mistake (aren't all big scallops diver scallops?) and sometimes because unscrupulous dealers or chefs knew the fashionable "diver scallops" would fetch a higher price. 

Over time the term diver scallop became less and less meaningful. It's pretty much an open secret among knowledgeable fishmongers and chefs that what's passed off as "diver scallops" are almost always harvested by draggers.  Now let's be clear about something: I'm a huge proponent of dayboat drag-caught scallops. They're a delicious, sustainable choice (more on the sustainability in an upcoming post). It's just that calling a drag-caught scallop a diver scallop is lying.  And I don't like lies. In fact, I'm a wicked stickler for honesty.  Calling drag-caught scallops diver scallops is insulting to draggers because it's a tacit insinuation that dive-caught scallops are better. It does a disservice to divers because passing off trip boat scallops as hand-harvested dayboat scallops dilutes the reputation of the genuine article that they work VERY hard to harvest.  And of course it does a disservice to consumers, who are being duped into paying more money for nothing.

Fraudulent use of the term diver scallop is so pervasive some reputable organizations are now coming up with their own definitions that have nothing to do with harvest method. I took the following statement from the website fishchoice.org. FYI I've asked them to correct it but they haven't responded (I'll update this post if they do).

"Although very small quantities of U.S. scallops are harvested inshore by divers, the term “diver” scallops refers to a dry scallop that has not been treated by sodium tripolyphosphate" 

THAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A DRY SCALLOP, NOT A DIVER SCALLOP! ARGGGHHHH!!!!!!!!

But you see, the term "dry" has also been so diminished by fraudulent use this organization is apparently trying to put both of them together in an attempt to salvage one meaningful definition.  Personally I believe they're just exacerbating the confusion and misuse associated with both terms, so hopefully they'll correct it.  But at least they're highlighting how very rare true diver scallops are.  So I'll give them that :)

There's a small dive fishery in the Canadian Maritimes but the state of Maine is the only US state with a significant dive fishery.  And in each of the last five years, fewer than 30,000 pounds of true diver scallops were harvested in Maine. Since the Federal scallop fishery generally brings in between 32 million and 55 million pounds, that means that less than one tenth of one percent of U.S. sea scallops are actually harvested by divers.  Mull that one over the next time you see diver scallops on a menu.  And bear in mind Maine's dive season runs November through April so if you see "fresh diver scallops" on a menu between May and October, you can be pretty sure someone's been duped.  Don't let it be you!  

So what's the real take-away from this post?  Well, it's this: you should be very skeptical of anyone claiming to offer you "diver scallops" (regardless of the presence or absence of quotation marks). And you should buy your seafood from someone you trust.  And remember: it doesn't matter whether a scallop was harvested by a diver or a dragger.  What matters is WHERE it was harvested (I recommend Maine's inshore waters), how soon it was brought to shore and how it was handled on the boat and on its way to you.

If you can buy directly from harvesters, you should.  And if you can't, then you should buy from someone like me, who prioritizes quality over quantity and will ALWAYS tell you the true story behind your seafood.

Thanks for reading through this post, my first in a series designed to make you feel more confident in your seafood choices.  Because when you understand seafood better, you'll enjoy it more. 

And to that end, please share this post!  There's a little share icon at the top.

In closing, here's a photo of Waylon looking pensive.  Perhaps he's pondering options for other posts.  Do YOU have a question you'd like answered?

Let me know in the comments! 

-Togue

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16 comments

  • Thank you! Educational and well written. I always wondered how on earth there could be so many diver scallops…:)

    Lynne on
  • Very informative. Thanks, Togue. Can’t wait to ask a few questions next time I see “diver scallops” on a restaurant menu somewhere. By the way, your scallops are second to none anywhere.

    Mike on
  • Thank you for the education on “Diver Scallops”. After reading this I promptly went tot my freezer and took out my dinner, can you guess what it’s gonna be. Stellwagon Scallops, from the FV Paxton Leigh, and the fisherman was John Todd. As I’ve told you in the past, I will ONLY get my Scallops from you, Togue. They ARE the freshest, most tasty little bites from the deep blue sea. I’m “hooked” for life. I like knowing where my seafood comes from. Thank You for all of your hard work.

    Patricia Knaack on
  • So true. I worked in the high-end restaurant industry back in the day and it was quite the big deal back then. Just like New Zealand Strawberries or other “found” food items were all the rage. Your scallops are a must-have for a true taste delight! So glad I found you. I will never buy from anyone else. The flavors from the different fisherfolks who work hard to bring them to market are wonderful.

    Dave on
  • You are awesome and Weylon. We very much appreciate learning about this deception and the taste of your scallops is the proof for me.

    Frank Charnley on

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