People enjoy scallops in Oban. “We can’t get enough of them to satisfy demand,” smiles Carol Watt, whose family business has been selling fish for more than a century in the port city of Argyll.
Watt explains how she likes to cook the mollusks: pan-fried and eaten with pancetta, Italian bacon, as a line of masked shoppers forms outside her tiny mustard-yellow shack.
Watt beams with excitement as she shows off a tray of shucked scallops, palm-sized, pale, fleshy slices with the fiery red roe still holding on, which some customers find too spicy, wearing an apron emblazoned with a species-rich school of fish.
In the past, scallops, often referred to simply as “clams” in Scotland, were never so common. In 1960, the Scottish ports landed just sixty tons of the species. There were 15,000 tons in 2019, down 2% from 2018 but still worth almost £ 36 million.
The boom, however, has sparked an often bitter conflict about how scallops, which grow on the seabed, are harvested between environmentalists and the fishing industry.
Some “scallops” are lifted from the sea sustainably by divers, who charge a premium for doing so.
However, most are scraped by bottom trawlers from the seafloor.
Divers and environmentalists argue that to establish a shellfish monoculture off the Scottish coast, the dredgers plow through the delicate marine ecosystem.
Trawlers argue that they still fish sustainably, that they stay away from environmentally sensitive areas, and that the seabeds are recovering.
This is not an academic disagreement in Oban. Scallops from Watt are dredged. So are those sold at another harbor fish shack, a green shack whose sign grandly proclaims Oban to be the “Seafood Capital of Scotland.”
Nearly half of the shellfish in Scotland derive from the West Coast. So divers and dredge operators are living and working here hand in hand. But not always with ease.
Divers have reported harm that they think is due to industrial scalloping.
Between the summer of 2019 and 2020, there were 48 incidents of alleged illegal dredging – when trawlers reach marine protected areas, or MPAs, the tiny portion of Scotland’s seas set aside for nature – although most reports are difficult to substantiate, let alone refute. The “yonder awa,” out of sight, is what happens at sea.
Divers and environmentalists think Marine Scotland, the Scottish fisheries regulator, is too lax, too close to the industry. Dredgers claim that the regulator is too rigid, that its SNP officials are too close to the Greens.
Stef Cooper is a diver who has discovered damage from dredging, helping to chart the telltale tramline tracks left behind by such fishing.
He dives out of the Compass Rose boat, now moored in Oban Harbor.
Even if it’s a long day of up to 13 hours, the 39-year-old will bring home 300 pounds a day when he picks 100 kilos of scallops, enough to fill his large green net – the size of a potato sack – twice.
Cooper says, “It’s like being a hunter-gatherer,” repeating a phrase often used by trawlers.
A scalloper, a dredging vessel, is two boats down the dock from the Compass Rose. What’s Cooper thinking about his job?
“I have mixed feelings,” he replies. It’s a lot of guys trying to make a living. And no one should object to that being done by someone.
But if they were just bulldozing the ocean floor out there,” he digresses, takes a deep breath, and adds, “If this were a private corporation levelling the national park, there would be an uproar. No one, though, sees it: it’s invisible.
“It’s heartbreaking,”It’s heartbreaking,”It’s like the difference between being in a wild forest or a plowed field.like “It’s the difference between being in a wild forest or a plowed field.
What is the link between dredgers and their critics? “At sea, there’s no RAC or AA,” says Cooper. “So we rely on each other.”
However, reporting perceived wrongdoing has made things awkward: “It’s always going to cause problems because it’s seen as a betrayal of the marine community,” says Cooper.
No compliance is here, it’s all on paper. And if they get caught within the MPAs, they just get a ticket.”Even if they get caught within the MPAs, they just get a ticket.” It needs, it wants,