There's an exciting ingredient hiding on specials menus in select Seattle-area restaurants right now—a native Puget Sound scallop that hasn't been available commercially in nearly 20 years.
Pink scallops once appeared regularly in Seattle, but that was in the mid-80s, when divers gathered them in great numbers. A number of factors — including Paralytic Shellfish Poison scares, a shelf-life of just three days out of water causing logistical difficulties in getting them to market, and increasing red tape — ultimately made them less attractive to harvest.
"By the late 90s the fishery had wound itself down to pretty much nothing," writes Nick Jones of Jones Family Farms, a Lopez Island company helping get the pink scallops to market today. "For the next ten years the fishery remained technically open, but no one harvested. Meanwhile, FDA guidelines stiffened up to the point that open-water harvest of any shellfish became illegal." Jones and others have been slogging through bureaucracy for six years to get the scallops back to market, and that finally happened in January.
Currently, Jones Family Farms is distributing scallops to the following Seattle-area restaurants: RockCreek, Salare, Canlis, Shaker & Spear, 99 Park, Single Shot, The Herbfarm, Blueacre Seafood, Matt’s in the Market, Altura, Art of the Table, Anchovies & Olives, Westward, and The Whale Wins. Jones Family Farms also has limited availability at its shellfish farm on Lopez Island (just south of the ferry terminal in Shoal Bay) and is hoping to start selling at farmers markets soon.
Pink scallops are distinctly smaller than the ones most people are used to eating. Their shells are only about three inches across and the meat inside about the diameter of a nickel. But they pack in the flavor: In a New York Times article, Susan Herrmann Loomis wrote, "Pink scallops, which have a more complex flavor than sea scallops on the East Coast, are less aggressively sweet and they are balanced by a pleasant, oyster-like brininess as well as a nutty flavor usually associated with clams. At certain times during the year a small, bright orange or golden egg sac wraps around the mussel, which adds a firm, textured dimension to the scallop's natural tenderness, and accentuates its nutty flavor."
Herrmann Loomis wrote those words back in 1987, when the scallops were harvested by the hundreds and even thousands of pounds. Today, divers—who must hand-harvest them at depths of 60 to 100 feet—are bringing up only about 50 pounds a week, making the little bivalve's triumphant return a slow one.