By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 11 2017 08:00AM
One of our favourite early summer outings is a trip to the south coast to dive for scallops.
In truth, the plump, sweet and succulent scallop isn't strongly seasonal and can be enjoyed most of the year round but, since they spawn during the later summer months, June provides the optimum compromise between their reproductive cycle, some slightly warmer coastal waters and suitably calm weather needed for scuba diving.
The highly-selective and labour intensive operation of diving for scallops is about as sustainable as you can get. Suitable specimens can be plucked from the seabed, 30m below the surface, and everything else is left completely undisturbed. Dredging, the alternative and most common method of harvesting scallops, is much less selective. Dragging a steel jaw along the seabed can cause considerable disturbance, damaging important habitats and dramatically reducing biodiversity.
Now, had we written this post a few years ago we'd definitely have urged you to stick exclusively to "hand-dived" or "diver-caught" scallops. And that is still largely the case - if you ever find yourself doubting the mantra that fresh British seasonal food is best, try a fresh South coast hand-dived scallop and compare it to a foreign, frozen, supermarket one. It's an embarrassing Round One, knock-out of the foreign contender and victory to the eco-friendly home-grown heavyweight.
But supporters of the dredging industry point out that scallops live in naturally sparse areas of sand and gravel that are routinely disturbed by waves and tidal action in any event. They also say that certain dredged fisheries (such as the Rye Bay fishery) have been producing good numbers of scallops for decades without any decline in number or quality – a sign that they can’t be doing that much damage.
It is at least a partly-convincing argument and it's only fair to point out that the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has recently rated some dredged scallops as sustainable on its Fish to Eat web resource. King Scallops from Shetland are rated 2 on its sustainability scale - the same as diver caught scallops from other regions. The MCS says that, in some case, the effects of dredging can be mitigated by rotating the areas that are dredged as well as using smaller, less powerful dredgers and lighter weight gear.
Dredged scallops are, unsurprisingly, considerably cheaper that their more carefully handled cousins and with some now rated as similarly sustainable, it's hardly reasonable to expect everyone to stick to the priciest option. There are plenty of other arguments in favour of diver caught, not least the quality of the product (dredged scallops tend to be grittier and have damaged shells) and we still always buy them, but it's a slightly harder call than it once was and one which a combination of your wallet and conscience will need to make.
Scallops should be cooked simply and quickly to enjoy their sweet, succulent flesh.