The scallop hunter: Hector Stewart talks about what happens in the murky depths of Scotland’s scallop beds.
‘Fresh, locally dived scallops,’ reads the menu at many a restaurant, portraying a romantic picture of sparkling blue seas and a lone diver working at one with nature. But is this the reality?
‘Partly,’ says Hector Stewart, a professional scallop diver from Skipness on the Kintyre Peninsula. He happens to think that his job is one of the best in the world, but it is hard work and requires dedication, for Hector dives seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, when the weather permits. He is also bound by a host of rules and regulations, designed to make diving safe, to ensure shellfish is safe to eat, and to stop unlicensed divers selling shellfish through the ‘back door’.
‘Unfortunately there are still divers out there who ignore the rules, and hotels and restaurants that aid and abet them. It is a difficult industry to police,’ he says.
Stewart switched to professional diving just over six years ago, having been a creel fisherman for many years, catching langoustines, crab and lobster. ‘We were having too many conflicts with trawlers in the loch and losing our gear to them, so I decided to dive for shellfish instead,’ he says.
His ten-metre catamaran, Pride and Joy, steams out from Tarbert harbour at the crack of dawn each morning, taking the crew towards the rich diving grounds in the Firth of Clyde. Onboard are three divers plus an observer, who also sorts out the shellfish and returns undersized specimens to the sea.
Stewart explains that his policy is to take scallops at least 10mm above the minimum landing size of 100mm, leaving plenty to spawn and repopulate the stocks. ‘We do our bit for conservation, and hand-picking from the seabed – unlike dredging – ensures that no damage is done. Our methods also mean the animals are not stressed.’
Scallops account for around one third of his daily take, with the remainder made up of razor clams (spoots) and sand gapers. Spoots are captured using a low pressure water pump which is held over the tell-tale holes they make in the seabed. It washes the sand away from the base of the shellfish, which is then carefully removed by a diver. Sand gapers are collected in the same way, but are deeper in the seabed.
Markets remain buoyant and Stewart says he could sell ‘a thousand times’ more than he can land. Most of his produce goes through ScotPrime in Ayr, which deals with all the paperwork and ensures the shellfish is properly packed for distribution, he says. From there it is sent throughout Scotland and the wider UK, and as far afield as Spain, Portugal, Hong Kong and Korea.
So what makes a dived scallop so good? ‘They are succulent, sweet, free from grit, and unsoaked. Dredged scallops can have sand in the meat and some processors plump up the meats in water,’ explains Stewart. ‘And when landed legally, there are no health risks to consider. In short, their popularity is well deserved!’