Scallop fisherman and owner of Merrick Shellfish Evan O’Brien stands next to his boat, the F/V Sinbad in Eliason Harbor. (KCAW/Ezra Dan)

There aren’t many scallop fisheries in Alaska. While the mollusks are plentiful in Southeast waters, harvesting them is resource and time intensive. KCAW’s Ezra Dan spoke with a local scallop fisherman who is bringing the delicacy to dinner tables in Sitka and Southeast, with sustainability in mind. 

On days when Evan O’Brien isn’t diving for pink swimming scallops or harvesting gooseneck barnacles off steep rock faces at low tide you can find him in a slip at Thomsen Harbor, working on the new diving boat he purchased from Oxnard, California earlier this year. The F/V Sinbad was purchased by O’Brien for his company, Merrick Shellfish, from a sea urchin diver, so the boat is equipped with everything he needs for a dive. 

So what does a typical dive for these scallops look like?

“You’ll swim up to a boulder or something that’s covered with them,” O’Brien explains. “And in the winter like this, maybe, I don’t know, 10 to 20% of them will take off, start swimming,” he continues. “I just leave those, and I harvest the ones that stay, because they’re kind of dormant and they’re sort of hibernating, so they’re easier to harvest.”   

But they aren’t so sleepy in the summertime. 

“There’s more light, and the water is starting to warm up a little bit, and they’re getting more active,” O’Brien says. “You’ll swim up to that same boulder that’s covered, and maybe 80% of them will take off. And then you’re just trying to pick them out of the air, it’s like you’re trying to catch butterflies or something with the net. And that gets much harder.”

A dive video captured by O’Brien shows swimming scallops in action.

O’Brien isn’t new to this type of work. Before diving for scallops, he spent a few seasons diving for sea cucumbers and geoducks, another bivalve shellfish industry that thrives in Southeast Alaska. Choosing to switch to pacific swimming scallops, also known as singing scallops because of the sound they make when they propel through water, the only current Alaska scallop fishery besides Kodiak’s weathervane scallop fishery, wasn’t easy for O’Brien and his company. That’s because gathering the data necessary to open the fishery is a heavy load. 

The long established geoduck fishery has an inexpensive method of collecting water samples to test biotoxin levels. The SE AK Regional Dive Fisheries Association, a local organization, buys one boat to collect all biotoxin water samples for geoduck harvesting. Merrick Shellfish doesn’t have the same luxury. As a ‘pilot fishery’ for the scallops and gooseneck barnacles he harvests, O’Brien has to ensure sustainability by collecting a year’s worth of data and sending harvest quota amounts to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation when he finds a new harvest area.

“The way it works is I get these different areas open with the DEC, which like I said, is a slow process. It takes at least a year to get a new area open, and they’re relatively small areas. I mean, we’re talking about a single inlet kind of thing,” O’Brien says. “Then I request a specific amount of quota from, say, 1,000 pounds from this particular inlet, and Fish & Game will look at that request, and if they think it’s reasonable, they’ll approve that amount of quota.” 

Once he harvests the 1,000 pounds, he’s done for that area. 

“And my goal is to keep expanding, getting new areas open with the DEC,” O’Brien says. “I’m looking at areas that aren’t even open for harvest right now to get a sense of the abundance, and then I have to send in a year’s worth of water samples, and then a bunch of biotoxin samples, and then that area will open.”   

O’Brien’s plan is to get enough of these areas open for harvest so he can manage the fishery like geoduck and sea cucumber dive operations, where each area is rotated on a three year break between harvests. However, government fishery regulations haven’t been the only obstacle O’Brien has faced.

When selling to local grocery stores and restaurants during his first year of operation, O’Brien got complaints about how dirty the shellfish were. So O’Brien built his own special washer– it’s basically a garbage can full of brushes aided by a flowing water hose and after the scallops tumble through as he rotates it, they’re clean. The washer is also equipped with two inch holes so scallops smaller than regulation size can escape. And it works– he’s able to deliver his product to local businesses with less grit and grime– though the extra step also means extra time. 

O’Brien demonstrates how his homemade scallop washing machine works. “It’s a pretty janky system right now. As you can see, it’s just a garbage can on its side. But I got a bunch of brushes and abrasive stuff inside, and I just hook this hose up to the washdown pump on the boat, and you fill this up with 10 pounds of scallops, and you just rotate it,” he says. “The abrasiveness of the scallops rubbing against each other cleans them up really well.” (KCAW/Ezra Dan)

“You know, the real kind of high volume fishery, where you would just harvest thousands of pounds, [and] deliver them to a tender? That’s not what this product is,” O’Brien says. “I mean, each batch, every 10 pounds, needs to be treated, really carefully washed, and just handled with care.”

O’Brien’s season starts with scallop diving in the mid-winter months and is now harvesting gooseneck barnacles to sell. Some of his clients include Wildfish Cannery based out of Klawock, E-Fish, a national seafood delivery service, and Beak Restaurant in Sitka. Although O’Brien sometimes has his younger brother assist as a deckhand, Merrick Shellfish is largely a one-man business. But that’s okay with him. He says his goal for the fisheries has always been high value, low volume- to have a lower impact on the environment and stocks, while also introducing people to new and unusual seafoods. 

“It’s great to just see, even in relatively small quantities, see those products in the community and people in town enjoying them because it’s something that probably a lot of people have seen if they get the chance to be out on the water and have seen it and maybe notice it but never considered eating it,” O’Brien says. “Particularly the gooseneck barnacles because they’re so weird looking.”

Gooseneck barnacles are a delicacy in Spain and Portugal and many compare the taste to crab or shrimp. If you can get past the scaly appearance similar to a dragon’s toenails, they’re a real treat for seafood lovers. To eat them, diners must pinch the foot between thumb and forefinger, pull the meat out of its case, remove their claw and enjoy.