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I'll have my stingray cookie in chocolate chip please.

Cookie cut circles as scallops?

No thanks.

By Adam Jackson  

Elasmobranchs in general aren't used widely for food faire, discounting the highly controversial...well no not controversial just wasteful, cruel and unsustainable practice of 'finning' sharks for the traditional Asian soup cuisine. Thankfully more nations are taking up legal measures to protect their sharks but we aren't here to talk about that today, instead we'll be focusing on their elasmobranch cousins from the order Batoidea, the rays.

Generally speaking rays aren't targeted by commercial fishermen for a multitude of reasons; they can be difficult to catch, and cleaning the meat for retail sale has typically not been cost effective, due to time and yield. The desire and preparation need to make ray meat desired versus other fair also makes them a less than economical target for most commercial organizations. Why even mention them as part of the commercial ocean fisheries? In one word; scallops. These strictly marine bivalves from the family Pectinidae seem to have little in common biologically, but they are highly sought after as a prized food source, in particular the Atlantic scallop (P. magellanicus) which is found mostly along the Atlantic coasts of Canada and the United States.

In the past these scallops were mostly hand picked by divers, which was ecological as one diver could only collect so many, giving the scallops time to reproduce and thus remain a sustainable ecological food fair item.

However the former practice has been in large part replaced by scallop dredges, which are pretty indiscriminate in what they pick up off the sea floor (including rays). This practice has lead to scallops being less and less ecological as a food source; in New Zealand for instance their native species numbers were so low that commercial collection has now been banned.

Unfortunately unlike other bivalves consumed for food, including the Tridacnid clams that many of us aquarists keep as ornamentals, Pectinidae are not widely aquacultured. Currently China accounts for 80% of the words aquacultured and maricultured scallops, with Russia making up most of the bulk. The United States currently has no large commercial culturing programs despite being one of the world's largest consumers of the animals. The animals are quite resilient but they do not grow large in fast enough to sizes that are sufficient for high echelon restaurants.

Unfortunately this is where our friends the Rays come back into the story, commercial fisherman pressured into providing large scallops will often target larger sting-rays, the most common in the United States being the Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina). Due to D. Sabina not being listed on any commercial fishery lists as targeted faire they have been listed by the World Conservation Union as an animal of 'Least Concern' with most being reported as released alive when accidentally caught. Sources say the Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana) is also utilized in this practice but to a lesser extent.

Unscrupulous fisherman will then use cookie-cutter like devices to punch out holes in the wings of the ray and, de-skin them and then market the meat as large scallops, they do have a similar texture and taste to the novice foodie. Even worse some fisherman will cut the wings off of the rays live and throw the remainder of the animal back into the ocean, a practice similarly wasteful to shark finning.

There are a few ways you can protect yourself when attempting to purchase real scallops. Ray meat if not cleaned properly (removing of the bladder which bleeds into the meat) tends to have a stronger odor of ammonia, and often appears discolored or darker due to being higher apex predators and having larger mercury content versus scallops. Ray meat cut from the wings also tends to have longitudinal lines, also the cartilaginous muscle striations. Ray meat also tends to be denser and not hold moisture as well as scallops, so avoid pieces that appear yellowed or dried. Being a bivalve the scallop's adductor muscle is vertical, meaning when cooked or raw they should not break horizontally. With this knowledge you should be able to tell whether you are eating the real deal or not.

This post isn't meant, as a moral guide as to which animal is better to consume but it is important to monitor and be aware of commercial fisheries habits, both as a consumer and conscientious citizen of the Earth. Some cultures enjoy ray meat and openly market it, though it is difficult to prepare properly and like sharks you should monitor your intake for mercury levels. It's difficult to say what is more responsible to consume the stingray or the scallops, but at the least the collection of both should be monitored and companies should be penalized for offering faux items. It should be noted that most rays are also not covered under most laws that legally protect sharks, this is an issue that may need to be addressed soon as rays alike are important both as predators and prey in all of our oceans.

Sharks and Rays in Aquariums
Gaining an understanding of how to keep these fishes in captive saltwater systems   

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by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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