"Rarest seafood product on the market": Puget Sound pink scallops make comeback

Published on
March 21, 2017

After nearly two decades off the market, a small, tasty scallop that was once a symbol of Puget Sound’s thriving and diverse seafood sector is making a comeback, albeit in small numbers.

The man behind the resurgence of the wild-caught pink scallop, Nick Jones, who raises shellfish and does land farming from his Jones Family Farms on Lopez Island, is hoping those small numbers will be a big marketing draw.

“We’re calling them the rarest commercially available seafood in the world,” he said. “Beluga sturgeon caviar is produced at about a rate of a half a million pounds a year, and with pink scallops, between the U.S. and Canada, I think we’re going to max out at something like 200,000 pounds.”

The rarified beluga sturgeon caviar is known for reaching astronomically high prices. A two-ounce jar of the “black gold” sells on Amazon for USD 269 (EUR 250). Pink scallops do not quite demand that. But Jones said he is getting around USD 13.50 (EUR 12.50) per pound, and lists 28 restaurants around Puget Sound as buyers, despite his recent entry into the market.

Seattle’s White Swan Public House sells a plate of the scallops topped with roasted carrots, mint and bonito crumbs and dowsed with lime for USD 29 (EUR 26.95).

Pink scallops rushed onto the region’s high-end seafood scene in the mid-1980s, when divers scooping up urchins and sea cucumbers in the depths of Puget Sound also found a huge abundance of the small, pastel-colored scallops. Their distinct taste almost immediately put them on the map.

In 1987, New York Times food writer Susan Herrmann Loomis described them “as less aggressively sweet” than East Coast scallops and “balanced by a pleasant, oyster-like brininess as well as a nutty flavor usually associated with clams.”

But the pink scallops – also known as singing-pink or pink-singing scallops – did not last long in the spotlight.

The tiny bivalves – shells about three inches in length that hold a nickel-sized dollop of meat – are found from the Gulf of Alaska to Southern California, but only exist in harvestable populations in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, the Canadian Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia. They live below 60 feet in the region’s deep, high-flow channels and are hand-harvested by divers that go as deep as 110 feet, making for a tricky, even dangerous catch.

Jones said pink scallops dropped out of the market in the early 2000s when seafood prices throughout the region hit rock bottom and the top diver – “the only guy who could produce volume” – retired.

In 2010, Seattle food writer Susan Dickerman asked Jones and his wife, Sara, what became of pink scallops, prompting an obsession to revive the fishery. It turns out the scallops were still popping around the channels in numbers.

“There has never been a resource issue in the pink scallop fishery. The issue has always been one of the logistical [difficulties] of harvesting [them], along with pricing and regulation,” Jones added.

Jones Family Farms quickly found a tenacious partner in the endeavor: diver Joe Stephens. Stephens was equally interested in pulling up marketable quantities of the scallops, and as “irascible” in the pursuit as the Joneses.

After a seven-year regulatory struggle with state officials, now divers are plucking the wild pink scallops from channels and relaying them to Jones Family Farms shellfish harvesting grounds. There, they are held and tested for DSP and fecal chloroform before being packed in mesh bags and hustled off the restaurants.

Jones Family Farms made their first delivery of the season 9 February and expects to sell 100,000 pounds of the scallops by February of next year.

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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