Scallop Harvest on Lake Saroma

scallop boats

I had the chance to join an aquacultural expedition this morning out onto Lake Saroma.  Scallops are one of the biggest industries in this small town, and the last week of May is one of the most important times of the year for the scallop harvest.  The scallops are farmed, going through a process of maturation over four or five years before reaching the consumer, one that I don’t fully understand.  But this morning, I got a chance to remedy that, and ventured out onto the Lake in a boat for the first time.

It came up just yesterday afternoon.  I had found out that I would have to start paying Japanese local, prefectural, and national income tax starting in June rather than in August like I had thought.  I had also found out that I would be docked 35,000 yen in pay from my June paycheck due to my overuse of personal leave in May.  I wasn’t feeling great.  Yuko, in her infinitely helpful way, suggested that I join a fishing crew with Mr. Sumiyoshi, who works across the room in the Social Ed. Dept.  I already had a busy week, but didn’t want to miss the free boat ride.  I volunteered to go the next morning.

I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but that’s how new experiences work.

Sumiyoshi picked me up at my house around 2:45 AM, and we made the 15 minute drive through fog to Toppushi fishing port, north of central Saroma on the lake.  The amount of traffic on these country roads at three in the morning was impressive.  This is in a town where the national highway is deserted after 8 PM.  Something was definitely going on.

We walked to a small work room, sort of like a shed, but part of a much longer structure that paralleled the dock, where boats were lined up, all of similar white, moulded construction, with yellow and red running lights on the masts.  I was given good waterproof purple pants and a jacket and good grippy gloves and a yellow life jacket.  The women giggled as I struggled to enter the strange vestments, but I’m used to that.

After some introductions to Grampa and Gramma Sumiyoshi, fisherpeople to the core, we quickly made our way out to the boat, set off from the dock out into the lake, and some minutes later rendezvoused at a yellow buoy.  30 or 40 other boats from the same port were also waiting, all the same distance from the shore, as if a line was drawn parallel the same distance as the buoy.  I asked Sumiyoshi what exactly was going on, if this was where we were fishing, this close to shore.  He explained that everyone was waiting for the Fishing Cooperative to make the announcement to start.  “Oh, so is it sort of like a race?” I jokingly asked.  “Yes, that’s pretty much it.” he replied, and as he did so, an announcement came out from the port, piped shortwave through speakers on the boats, echoing disorientingly across the foggy morning gloom.  It was time.

And off we raced.  To our own premarked buoy.  Nubby four-pronged grappling hooks were tossed into the water which grabbed a set line from the water and lifted it up onto two pulleys on the side of the boat.  These pulleys moved the line sideways along the boat, until hanging nets full of scallops emerged.  Hauled up and over the side by a rotating rubber cylinder, they landed with slimy, clattering thuds on the cold deck.  These nets weighed 100-pounds, and were full of one-year-old, white-on-one-side, black-on-the-other, silver dollar sized scallops.  Slid to the side, their rip cord yanked up and out to open the net, they were emptied by two people shaking the scallops as fast as they could into plastic crates on the deck.

My back hurt.  Time flew.  The sun came up.  We went back to the port.  The skipper became a forklift operator and the scallop-shuckers became net-sorters, crate-stackers, deck-swabbers and truck-drivers.

While most of the ten people in our team (that number includes me) prepared the boat and nets and materials for another go, Old Man Sumiyoshi drove the entire catch to the other side of the port for wholesale to other fishermen from Mombetsu, 50 miles up the coast.  These fishermen continue cultivating the scallops by setting them in the cold Sea of Okhotsk.

Back on the boat, we hauled ass back out into the lake, engine belching diesel fumes, men swilling six ounce cans of Georgia coffee and smoking Seven Stars brand cigarettes. We would do this three more times.  On these next three trips we hauled up much smaller nets that I could handle myself.  It took a bit of figuring out, but I caught on quickly and focused so hard on dumping slimy mollusks into a dingy crate that I almost forgot I was even on a boat in the middle of a lake in Japan.  On the final trip ugly green fish kept showing up in the nets.  Gramma said they were called “ganji.”  I have no idea what they are in English, but I enjoyed tossing them out of the boat.

We finished a little early because they had to finish selling the day’s take to the Mombetsans on the other side of the port.  They said there was another run to do, but no time.  So, here I am at home, 7:33 AM, having been awake for five hours, eating fish and rice and drinking sugar-free Emerald Mountain Blend Café au Lait.  Will I do it again tomorrow?  No.  But hell if that wasn’t cool.

4 replies on “Scallop Harvest on Lake Saroma”

Awesome!! I can picture the drive to the lake on those straight country roads. Sounds like hell of an experience. I wonder if you’ll get to enjoy any of those scallops you helped catch?

I did, in a way of speaking. A parent from Hamasaroma Elementary brought a bunch of baby scallops by the school, and I got about 10kg. So, not from the same trip, but the same type of scallops harvested at the same time from the same lake by people from the same town. Good enough for me! I got to learn how to steam, shuck (I can’t think of a better word), clean, and prepare the little skittle-sized morsels. I made a white sauce with scallops and mushrooms and onions and ate it over spaghetti. It was not at all bad.

just found this little site or yours. great story. sound like one of those amazing experiences where no one who does it every day understands why you are having so much fun.

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