Ol' blue eyes

Donny Maciel
Maciel guides the drag onto the culling board as it's pulled from the Cape Poge waters by the power hauler. Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

By Danielle Zerbonne - April 19, 2007

The close of March saw the end of another scalloping season on Martha's Vineyard, and those scallops that escaped the net will have several months respite to grow and spawn until October, when the season opens up again. It's hard to know what any given season will bring; some go like gangbusters, others are a little more disappointing (like this last one, according to many accounts). Still, each trip out holds its own mix of pleasures as well as frustrations.

Donny Maciel
Donny Maciel examines spider crabs collected from Edgartown's inner harbor. Essentially inedible, this catch was more of a science experiment and was quickly swept back into the water. Some of the crabs, like the one in the lower left hand corner of the photo, crawled swiftly toward the culling board's edge of their own accord.

One surprisingly mild morning this past November found a 22-foot Aquasport motoring through Edgartown harbor, a half-moon still visible in the blue morning sky and a soft breeze wafting in from the southwest. Donny Maciel of Edgartown, who's been scalloping his hometown waters on and off for almost 30 years, dropped one steel drag into the inner harbor with a splash, just to prove a point. "Full of spider crabs," he insisted. The mud colored, essentially inedible crustaceans aren't exactly at the top of most shellfishermen's list of desirables. But this was science. After a quick pass around a few vacant autumn moorings, he hit the power hauler. The now-bulging drag (basically a steel net that scrapes along the sea floor as it's towed behind the boat) surfaced and was hoisted, dripping, into the boat. With a few swift moves, Maciel emptied its contents onto the wide wooden culling board in front of him. An unnerving number of spider crabs cascaded across the board, wet and flailing. "See?" he said, momentarily admiring the catch before sweeping the bunch of them off the board and back into the water. He had bigger fish to fry.

In less than 10 minutes, Maciel was getting down to business in Cape Poge, tossing all six drags overboard and towing them in a slow semi-circle. Maciel likes going after bi-valves because "they don't run very fast," and although he occasionally dip nets for scallops in Sengekontacket Pond, "it's always more fun on the boat," he said.

Only moments before these two unlucky scallops were nestled in a clump of eel grass at the bottom of Cape Poge. Sitting agape in a milk crate they expose their multiple blue eyes, which can detect motion, light and dark and can help a scallop evade predators. Scallops are one of the few bivalves with the ability to swim, which did not help them in this instance.

Soon the power hauler roared into life, loudly cranking up nets full of eel grass. With a glistening mound of seaweed laid out on the culling board in front of them, Maciel and friend Mikey Sultan went to work in blue rubber gloves, sifting through the matted ocean material to find their silent prey, Argopecten irradians, the Atlantic bay scallop. For a few minutes, there's just the whirr of the boat's motor, the clank of steel nets being hauled aboard, and the ker-plunk of large tangles of seaweed being brushed into the water with the back of a rubber-gloved hand. After years of going head to head with the blue-eyed scallop, Maciel can see immediately if one is too young to take; "seed" is tossed back to grow for next season.

Sultan rinsed the newly captured scallops overboard and poured them with a clatter into a larger wire basket. Some of them yawned open slowly, exposing their multiple dark blue eyes, then suddenly snapped shut. After several hours in Cape Poge the boat turned back to home port. A common loon surfaced off the starboard side, concluding a bit of fishing itself.

It took seven tows of six drags to collect just shy of a bushel that day, a disappointing catch for the amount of work that went into it. Bay scallops were selling at about $15 a pound last November, and the near-bushel might yield about 8 pounds, shucked. For Maciel, though, "it's not about the money." He goes out for the boat ride and a few early Christmas presents for friends. He retains his sense of humor about the whole endeavor, and he's hopeful about next season, because he threw back a lot of seed. "There are two things you need to catch scallops," he confides. "A strong back and a weak mind."