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Q is for Qualicum Beach scallops

Q is for Qualicum Beach scallops

Despite ocean everywhere, when some on our coast think about scallops, Canada's East Coast comes to mind. It's understandable; tasty scallops come from there and are sold at local supermarkets.

Comox-born Rob Saunders has worked hard to change that mindset by establishing a source of fine-tasting scallops harvested off our shores, not those thousands of kilometres away. His interest in all things ocean-related started early.

"My family spent every summer on Hornby Island since I was nine. I was always enthralled by sea life," Saunders says. His mother encouraged that interest and gave him a copy of Between Pacific Tides, described as a book for all who find the shore a place of excitement, wonder and beauty.

"I've been bent on biology ever since," Saunders said.

In the 1970s, Saunders obtained a bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia and did his undergraduate work at the Bamfield Marine Station. He became fascinated with aquatic plants and co-founded a company called Canadian Benthic Ltd.

"Everybody was rushing to grow the plants that would produce marine gums," Saunders said. Those natural gums found in seaweed were used to produce such things as agar-agar, a thickening agent used in food products. While Saunders was doing this work, folks in the Philippines were doing the same thing, and with excellent growing conditions had great success.

"Success in the Philippines caused prices to drop," Saunders said.

With seaweed cultivation not looking financially viable, Saunders switched gears and looked into developing a cultured shellfish business. That's when he became obsessed with scallops.

The B.C. Shellfish Growers Association ( says that, unlike in Japan or the Atlantic coast, the culture of scallops on our Pacific coast relies entirely upon hatchery seed. In the 1980s, researchers, such as Dr. Neil Borne at Nanaimo's Pacific Biological Station, investigated seed production methods. In 1989, Saunders used that research and government and private funds to establish Island Scallops in Qualicum Beach.

The company developed hatchery technology for producing Japanese scallop seed and began farming scallops in nearby Bayne's Sound. Things got off to a rough start, and it wasn't the waves.

"The second year we got hit by disease [a parasite]," Saunders said. "I remember sitting there one January wondering what the hell was I going to do."

He stuck with it and, over a number of years, developed the Qualicum Beach scallop -- a hybrid of the Japanese scallop and our native weathervane.

The Japanese scallop was initially chosen because it is a hardy variety successfully farmed in other parts of the world. The weathervane scallop, although sensitive and not well suited to farming, was believed to carry a gene that would enable it to resist parasites. The marriage worked. The Qualicum Beach scallop is resistant to disease and, more importantly, wonderful to eat.

The scallop, one of the world's largest, yields plump, beautifully textured, divine-tasting meat. Numerous chefs around B.C. have noticed and now feature them on their menus. Despite that admiration, Saunders says four years ago he had to make a decision on whether to sell the company or seek financing to expand.

"Unlike a traditional farm, we don't own the land [the sea bottom] and have nothing to mortgage," Saunders said. Because of that, Saunders says if Mother Nature hands you a bad year and cash flow is not great, it's a struggle to get things going the next year.

Despite that stress, he decided to carry on. He hooked up with U.S.-based Ocean Smart, formerly known as Edgewater Foods International. The capital raised was used to expand scallop production and better his economies of scale. The expanded production has also been good news for home cooks: Qualicum Beach scallops have become more widely available at local supermarkets.

Beyond scallops, Saunders's company also works with new species with potential for culture, such as geoduck clams and abalone, and established aquaculture species, such as mussels.

During his 20 years of operating Island Scallops, Saunders has had to wear many hats. By my calculation, he has had to be a biologist, farmer, entrepreneur, marketer, innovator, salesman, employer, lobbyist, peacemaker and environmentalist.

"Scallops require clean water to grow and can only be harvested from clean waters," Saunders said.

This sounds like a lot of work, and when asked what keeps him going Saunders said: "I love growing things in the ocean. Every day is different. Its never ever dull and boring."

To learn more about Island Scallops, visit

[email protected]

Eric Akis is the author of the best-selling Everyone Can Cook book series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.