Another bay scallop season is in the books. Since Martha’s Vineyard is one of the few places left on the planet where Aequipecten irradians still have have a foothold in the wild, these bivalves are the gold nuggets of shellfish.
Wholesale and retail prices fluctuated during the season; the going price this year averaged about $22 a pound, according to fishermen and shellfish constables who spoke to The Times.
Depending on the scallop size, a bushel of bay scallops contains about 8 pounds.
Bay scallops have declined precipitously in recent years. To help bolster their population, each town, except West Tisbury, paid roughly $37,000 for bay scallop seed grown by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) in the past season.
“In the modern era, a good year is 3,000 to 5,000 bushels. We did about 3,000 this year,” Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said. When he started working for the town in 1984, Mr. Bagnall said a good year totaled around 20,000 bushels.
“There’s a lot of possible reasons for the decline, but as the human population on the coast goes up, the bay scallop population goes down.”
Cape Poge Bay was the most productive area in Edgartown waters, especially at the Gut, Mr. Bagnall said.
Sengekontacket provided a decent crop for the dipnetting fishermen, but it was not a banner year. “They grow well in Sengie, around the Big Bridge and Major’s Cove, but there’s a fair amount of predation on them during the summer,” he said. “The lack of eelgrass leaves the seed pretty exposed.”
Mr. Bagnall said the outer harbor has been productive in years past, but not this year: “Sometimes the deep water behind the lighthouse is productive, but not so much this year.”
Shellfish is big business in Edgartown. Mr. Bagnall said in a good year, scallops can bring in over $1 million, and farmed oysters are bringing in close to $3 million a year.
He said in addition to the seed from MVSG, he is in the fourth year of a program to spawn bay scallop seed on Chappy. “Since we’ve been doing that, we’ve seen that the bad years aren’t quite as bad,” he said.
Tisbury had a tough year. The season was short-lived, going only from Oct. 15 to mid-December, with 655 bushels harvested. In 2014, 1,828 bushels of bay scallops were harvested. “There’s a lot of different factors that have contributed to the decline,” shellfish constable Danielle Ewart said. “Predation and pollution play a factor. I think this year it had a lot to do with the algae bloom,” she said. There were two algae blooms in Vineyard waters last year, pseudo-nitzschia and cochlodinium, a rust-colored algae. “The [cochlodinium] bloom has been linked to juvenile scallop mortality, but it hasn’t been proven to kill adults. It clogs the gills in scallops, and it does it to fin fish too.”
Bay scallops in Aquinnah waters are historically a mercurial bunch. This year was a banner year. “It was a fantastic season,” Aquinnah shellfish committee member Buddy Vanderhoop said. “There were so many we decided to open the [Menemsha] pond up for another month, rather than let the adults die. People were getting $25 a pound for a good part of the year, so they did great.”
Chilmark shellfish constable Isaiah Sheffer said bay scallops were relatively cooperative, with commercial fishermen landing 549 bushels and recreational fishermen 523 bushels. “We had really large scallops. There’s plenty of room for them to grow. The price stayed high, so people who wanted to spend the time to get their limit finished up strong.”
Mr. Sheffer said the quantity and quality of seed in Menemsha Pond bodes well. “Next year looks really good,” he said. “It could easily be twice as productive as this year was.”
In Chilmark, bay scallops are harvested in Menemsha, Quitsa, and Stonewall Ponds. Mr. Sheffer said Menemsha Pond is the most productive.
“That’s only because we lost all of our eelgrass in 2015 in Quitsa,” he said. “We’ve been working with the Environmental Protection Agency’s eelgrass expert, but we haven’t had much success restoring it. Until we have eelgrass in Quitsa again, I think Menemsha Pond is going to be our big producer.”
Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden estimates total bay scallop haul for this past season to be 1,600 bushels. Not a banner year, but better than last season, when 1,356 bushels were harvested, the lowest total in more than a decade.
“It ended up being a pretty decent season,” he said. “It would have been a poor season if Tommy Searle hadn’t found them off of Hart Haven.”
“If you don’t tow, you don’t know,” Mr. Searle told The Times. “The Lagoon is dead. So I towed from Vineyard Haven, past East Chop, all the way past Little Bridge. It took me about two days.”
Mr. Searle hit the bay scallop motherlode on Feb. 1. “It was my last tow; I was ready to go home for the season,” he said.
He estimated the scallop bed was ¾ of a mile long, and half a mile wide: “It put eight fishermen back to work, and it got me out of debt.”
Mr. Grunden said the bay scallops may be migrating due to the poor water quality in the ponds. “As they get more polluted, we’re seeing the ideal place is sometimes right outside the ponds,” he said. “The same thing is happening in Falmouth and Buzzards Bay. Sometimes the eelgrass does better offshore.”