It began at 3 a.m., a bursting, loud, rumbling noise that broke the rural silence and my sleep. It came and went continuously. I couldn’t take it anymore and got up to investigate.
I was staying at a Japanese resort hotel next to Lake Saroma on the northeastern coast of the island of Hokkaido. Little did I know that the jarring racket in this usually quiet town would lead me to discover one of the most memorable meals of my trip and one of the area’s most lucrative food industries: scallop farming.
Scallop farming starts with a perfect lake
Lake Saroma, the third largest lake in Japan, is adjacent to the Sea of Okhotsk, separated from the sea by a narrow sand spit. It was once a freshwater lake. Every year in April and May, snow melt from the mountains gushed into the 13 rivers that empty into the lake and flooded the area. Aside from destroying homes and villages, it also ruined the livelihood of the fishermen. To prevent future floods, locals dug out a bit of the sand strip to create a channel.
The narrow passage not only let the freshwater out to ease flooding, it also allowed seawater to come in, especially during high tide, leaving much of the lake brackish.
The passage frequently closed because of moving sand during winter storms, and locals worked to reopen the channel every year. People soon discovered other advantages to keeping the passage open.
New fish come to the lake and scallops, too
Fishermen could now easily catch salmon, herring and ocean trout that swam into the lake. Scallops and oysters that thrive in brackish water also found a home. In the 1950s, Japan studied the idea of introducing scallop farming at the lake, and it has been very successful. Today the lake has two permanent, man-made concrete passages to the sea.
When I checked into the hotel the day before, I found a pair of binoculars in the room and admired the calm, silent lake and the sea beyond. The next morning I rubbed my drowsy eyes and tried to reconcile two very different experiences: the prior day’s calm with the early morning noise. Soon I saw the source of the racket: boats moving at high speed on the lake. I noticed that the boats raced out, stopped for a while and then raced back to shore. They looked as if they were competing. I quickly dressed and went to the reception desk to find out what was happening. “They are scallop farmers at Sakaeura Fishery,” I was told. Without having breakfast, I dashed to the fishing port about a mile from the hotel to get a firsthand look at the operation.
Fishermen work day and night bringing in scallops
Fishing boats were still coming in and leaving the port every few minutes. I approached a senior fisherman, Kuniyoshi Ooi, who seemed to be overseeing the operation. He told me that 90 fishermen in this port are licensed to farm scallops. Each fisherman has his own boat, and each employs an average of 10 part-time workers — students from a nearby university — at this busy time of the year. Students are attracted by the good pay, $25 dollars an hour for work from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., Ooi said. The workers, dressed in bright colored uniforms, work as if part of a conveyor belt operation inside a long shed, extending several hundred feet along the quay.
Baby scallops are retrieved from the sacks
Scallop farming in Lake Saroma is a sustainable, environmentally friendly business. The first year of scallop culture begins in May when the fishermen drop a rope with a knitted sack to collect natural scallop larvae in the lake. Scallop larvae in nature affix themselves to the grass in water. In farming, it’s different. The larvae attach to the ropes lowered by the fishermen.
In August, fishermen remove the ropes with larvae from the water, transfer them to a larger, roughly knitted square sack and drop it into the water again. By the following May, the scallops in the sack have grown to about 2 inches. The boats retrieve the sacks, 200 at a time, with 1-year old scallops, called chigai.
Mostly students work on the scallop harvest
It was the roar of the boats engaged in this process that woke me from my deep sleep. The part-time workers removed the scallops from each sack, cleaned and sorted them, and transferred them into large, blue plastic bins. After unloading the sacks for processing at the dock, the boat again sped back onto the lake to fetch more.
No words were exchanged among the workers; each silently and rapidly did his job — on the boat, on the pier and in the shed. Neither did anyone show any interest in the visitor watching them and snapping iPhone photos so early in the morning. I learned that the year-old scallops are then transported through the channels to the sea and remain there to mature for 3 years before being harvested and sent to market.
Scallops go back to the sea for three more years
According to Ooi, the scallop harvest from the lake is about 44,000 tons each year. Fresh, frozen and dried scallops from this port not only satisfy the market in Japan but are exported to China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the United States. The 90 fisherman are part of a cooperative that provides for all of their needs, including food and housing allowances, funds for boat upkeep and crews, and generous retirement benefits. Ooi said last year’s profit from the scallop harvest, after all expenses, was more than $250,000 for each member of the co-operative. Not a bad catch; these fishermen are not poor.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
In addition to their sustainable scallop farming operation, the Tokoro Fishery Association, of which the Sakaerura Fishery is a part, helps maintain the health of the local environment. In the past, cutting trees for opening the nearby land upstream from the lake for commercial development created problems at the fishery. Eroded sand and soil entered the lake and suffocated the fish. And the chemical contamination from the developed land degraded the water quality, which also affected the fishery.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
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The next day on my way north to Wakkanai, the northernmost city of Hokkaido, I stopped at a roadside restaurant to sample the “scallop ramen.” As I devoured the delicious dish, vivid memories of my early morning visit to the fishing port flashed back to my mind. No scallops ever tasted better than the ones in my ramen.
Main photo: The memorable scallop ramen at the roadside restaurant found on the way north from Lake Saroma to Wakkanai. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo