Scallop dredge                         Credit: CSM Photos       

One of Alaska’s most exclusive fisheries gets underway on July 1 – weathervane scallops.  Just two boats take part in the fishery which spans from Yakutat to the Bering Sea.

“It’s pretty specialized. It’s not something you can get into easily. A fair bit of institutional knowledge and also specialized gear.  Lots of people have some Tanner crab pots lying around their back yards but not many have a 15 foot New Bedford scallop dredge in their back yards.”

Nat Nichols is area shellfish manager at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Kodiak. The scallop fishery also is very labor intensive as it includes catching and processing.

“It also takes a lot of manpower, with crews of a 12 people that are shucking by hand. Every Alaska scallop you’ve ever seen was shucked by hand.”

This year the two scallopers will compete for 267,000 pounds of shucked meats, which are the adductor muscle that keeps the shells closed. They are a wildly popular delicacy and can pay fishermen over $10 a pound, depending on size and grade.

Scallop boats drop big dredges that make tows along mostly sandy bottoms of strictly defined fishing regions. The fishery is co-managed with the federal government and has 100 percent observer coverage.

Yakutat has topped Kodiak in recent years as the top producer with a quota this year of 155,000 pounds to Kodiak’s 85,000 pounds. But Nichols says signs of two strong year classes are appearing around Kodiak, especially at the Shelikof.

“By the time they get to about 125m – 4 ½ to five inches, those are scallops that will start to be shucked and retained in the fishery.”

Those scallops will be about five years old – the bulk of the harvest is in the six to nine year range.

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While there’s observer data on the stocks, actual surveys have only been done for four years.

“We do a dredge survey every year but given that the scallop beds are spread from Yakutat to the Bering Sea we don’t survey every bed every year.”

Weathervane scallops are the largest in the world and their shells can measure up to 10 inches across.