The shell game
Sitting with my friend, Mike James, who was a few weeks into his first winter of commercial scalloping, I became aware of something different about him. It wasn't just his weather-bruised eyes or wind-burned cheeks - it was his repose, a well-earned exhaustion from long exposure to the elements and hard work.
The scalloping business seemed harsh, physical, based in nature, and evidently quite lucrative - all points of envy for a person such as myself, who spends his sunlit hours staring at a computer screen.
But this was not the beginning of my fascination with scalloping. For a long time I've included the scallop on my short list of the world's most mysterious creatures. Mollusks, as a rule, are primordial and bizarre, but the scallop wins hands down as the one that inspires an element of fiction that I insert as a buffer against the unknown. The basis for much of this mystery is that most people never see a scallop in its shell, let alone in its natural environment.
Photos by Sam Decker
Last week, at Mike's invitation, I headed to Chilmark looking forward to having some questions answered. Around one in the afternoon I arrived at a small shack overlooking Quitsa Pond. Inside, Mike, Denny Jason, and Casey Elliston, all in their early 20s, were shucking the scallops that they had caught that morning. Matt Mayhew was stoking the woodstove with a beer in his hand.
For anyone who's come in contact with an oyster, the verb "shuck" connotes strain and frustration. But as I watched the men work, the bay scallop seemed designed to be shucked. The shells opened easily and the guts peeled neatly away from the edible portion of the scallop. The illusion of ease was shattered when I tried one myself. The men's ability to shuck each scallop in less than five seconds was clearly the result of skill and practice.
The permits required to scallop commercially in Chilmark cost a total of $90 and allows a scalloper to collect two bushels, five days a week. With a family permit any Chilmark resident can collect half a bushel each week. A bushel yields anywhere from eight to ten pounds of scallop meat, a weight that varies pond to pond, season to season, depending on the health of the scallops, as well as on the shucker's ability to consistently cut each scallop cleanly from its shell. A bushel sells to fish markets at a fluctuating price, usually around $13. The recognizable portion of the scallop (the edible part) is the abductor muscle, which is responsible for opening and closing the shell, allowing the creature to swim.
Casey, dressed in a muddy hooded sweatshirt, a wool hat, jeans, and rubber gloves and boots, still needed to collect one more bushel and he agreed to take me out.
It was his first season scalloping commercially, though for the past several summers he has made his living as a bass fisherman.
When I asked Casey how the two occupations compared he studied me for a few seconds as though he were gauging whether this was a trick question. "Scalloping-" he paused to search for the right words, "is easier."
As soon as we pulled away from the dock, he tossed the three dredges overboard. The boat gently heaved when the yellow lines came taut and we began to drag the dredges along the floor of the pond. Casey looked at me and shrugged as if to say, "That's it."
A scallop skiff only requires a few essentials. A davit, also known as an A-frame, is a curved metal post that holds the pulleys through which run the ropes dragging the dredges, or nets. Most boats use between two and four dredges. There's the culling board, a broad surface set widthwise across the boat, on which one separates the scallops from everything else that gets caught in the dredge, which in my narrow experience, included mainly seaweed, crabs, oysters, and golf balls. And finally, there's the hauler, a mechanical device similar to a car wheel without the tire that pulls in the dredges.
Casey and I continued on a slow, straight course for about five minutes. A knot was tied in each rope to control the length, known as scope in the world of scalloping, between the boat and the dredges trailing behind. Casey explained that it's best to maintain a three-to-one ratio, meaning that 30 feet of scope is ideal in water 10 feet deep.
Casey took the boat out of gear and switched on the hauler located at our feet. He wrapped the rope once around the spinning wheel and in came our first dredge. He shook it in the water to get out the mud before pulling it up and dumping its contents onto the culling board. He repeated this with the other two dredges and then began what he admitted was his least favorite part - the culling.
While he worked through the pile he indicated the ages of various scallops, which is evident not only by their size, but, like a tree, by counting the rings on their shells. The amount of space in between the rings indicates their growth during a particular year. Bay scallops in Quitsa rarely live to be three years old and many of the ones a year old or younger Casey threw back because they were too small.
He explained that it is illegal to scallop if the temperature is below 30 degrees because the seeds, the term used for scallops less than a year old that can still spawn, would freeze to death on the culling board, diminishing next year's fishable population.
"This is the biggest one I have ever caught," Casey said, holding up a scallop that was nearly the size of my palm. On its shell were three distinct rings.
We lapped back towards the dock, repeating the process again of dredging and culling.
When Casey had gathered a bushel we headed in.
According to many, this has been the best season for scalloping on Quitsa in many years. Explanations ranged from the amount of rainfall to the shellfish warden's success at spreading seed in the pond last summer during the species' natural spawning period. Whatever of the reason, it looks like Chilmark scallopers have a long and bountiful season ahead of them.