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Meet Your Scallop Fisherman: A Q&A With Diver Evan O'Brien

Scallop harvester Evan O'Brien pictured with the day's scallop harvest.

 

If you're curious about the story behind our Pink Scallops in Brine, we think you'll love this 5-minute Q&A with Diver Evan O'Brien, our sole purveyor for the Pacific pink sea scallops featured in every tin!

Describe yourself. Born and raised Alaskan? Involved in other Alaska commercial fisheries?


I grew up in Port Townsend, WA, a small sea town that actually reminds me of Sitka in a lot of ways. My parents met in Utqiagvik, so Alaska always loomed large in my imagination growing up. I started diving at age 12 and was dazzled by the underwater world in Puget Sound. My first experience of Alaska came in 2013 when I spent a season (and then two more) gillnetting in Bristol Bay. A few years later, I began spending significant time living and diving in Sitka as part of my job with a University of California marine lab. In 2019 I began diving commercially for sea cucumbers, and moved to Sitka full-time shortly after that. As someone relatively new to Alaska, I am thrilled to be able to call a place like Sitka home and grateful to be part of the larger Southeast community.


Describe what first interested you about diver harvested scallops?


I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time diving and harvesting in Southeast Alaska. The range of seafood treasures that come out of the waters around Sitka is incredible, and it’s been a consistent source of joy to experience
that and share it with others. Swimming scallops are a prime example of a unique local treat. When I started seeing massive beds that seemed to extend forever while diving commercially for sea cucumbers, I began considering the possibility of commercial harvest.

What was the turning point, where you decided to pursue a partnership
with the State of Alaska and push for momentum on permitting the
fisheries for commercial use?


After a few rounds of exploratory calls to DEC and ADFG, I realized that, despite
a fairly daunting string of hurdles, a swimming scallop pilot fishery was possible
for someone willing to put in the work. I had good contacts at the regulating
agencies that made the process more approachable than it could have been.
At that point, it was just a matter of committing to the goal and staying persistent
through the many setbacks, both in attaining regulatory approval and in
establishing a viable market.


Describe the process of creating a new fishery in Alaska? What are the
steps that need to be completed and describe how sustainability and stock
conservation impacts the process?

For a live scallop fishery, the bulk of the process involves working with the
Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which houses Alaska’s
Shellfish Safety program. There’s a whole set of special regulations for
molluscan shellfish (which includes bivalves like scallops), with the focus being
on rigorous biotoxin testing, long-term water sampling to classify shellfish harvest
waters, and processing facility requirements that incorporate all the usual
HACCP precautions tailored specifically to shellfish.

On the Fish and Game side of things, obtaining a Commissioner’s Permit (issued
for experimental/pilot fisheries) was fairly straightforward given the small harvest
volume of my operation. As the initiator of a pilot fishery, a major aspect of my
role is to gather the data necessary to better understand impacts of commercial
harvest on stocks and the viability of scaling up production to the levels of a full
commercial dive fishery. Obviously I’m not the one ultimately making any of the
regulatory decisions, but I try to be as thorough and precise in my observations
as possible throughout the entire process and in my final report to the ADFG
biologists at the end of each season.

None of us are interesting in developing a fishery that will cause scallop
populations to collapse, so meticulous data collection and monitoring is essential
to the process.


Besides size and harvest method, what makes these scallops different
from other Alaska scallops?  


Pacific pink scallops in Southeast Alaska are pretty special. Unlike most
scallops, these are typically eaten whole, like a clam or oyster. Their shells come
in a huge range of colors—from bright orange, to deep purple, to camouflaged
gray.

Since the whole scallop is tested for biotoxins, the entire thing can be eaten, and
because they live on steep, rocky shorelines, rather than sandy flats, they don’t
have any grit in their digestive systems.

What impact would the development of this market have on you? Your
local community?


I love connecting people with local foods that they may not have had the chance
or inclination to try. This is especially appealing in high-value, low-volume
fisheries that emphasize appreciation of the resource more than exploitation of it.
This year, I’ve been able to sell my scallops all over the country, but I particularly
value the sales I’ve made right here in Alaska, whether it’s to our local Sitka
restaurant, Beak, or Southeast neighbor Wildfish Cannery!

In a broader sense, I think everybody wins when people eat more shellfish! Bivalves are one of the most environmentally efficient food sources on the planet.
Promoting greater consumption, even if that means starting with an unusual
product in a niche market, feels like a worthy goal.


Describe the taste and your favorite way to eat the scallops.

There’s a lot more flavor in these scallops than you’d find in a typical East Coast
bay or sea scallop. They’re not as sweet, and they have a briny, nutty flavor that
you might associate more with an oyster than a scallop.

I love giving them a quick steam in some white wine and then plucking them out of the shell and dipping in some mignonette or butter and garlic. In the summer I love making citrus scallop poke out of the adductor muscles. The
buttery texture is fantastic.

What is the season for these scallops? Peak harvest? Peak taste?


My typical season for these is January to early May, but the end date varies as it
is determined by increased biotoxin levels due to algal blooms.
Harvest is consistent during that time and they always taste great!

Favorite way to use shell discards?

My girlfriend makes jewelry out of marine debris collected during beach cleanups
around Sitka (check out Clean Current Jewelry) and she’s found that these
scallop shells are the perfect backdrops for displaying a pair of earrings.

Fun facts or tidbits you think Lower 48-ers might find interesting.

Nearly all scallop species can swim a little bit, but these guys put most of them to
shame! As the days get longer during these spring months, the scallops become
more active, and nearly all of them will take off vertically as I approach a bed to
harvest. With dozens of scallops launching in different directions at once,
harvesting this time of year can feel more like chasing butterflies than collecting
sea creatures.

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