Vineyard bay scallops provide hard work, good pay, high value

A prized bounty, the fruits of this harvest ripple through the Island economy.

Edgartown scallopers shoot the breeze following a morning on the water. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Aquipecten irradians, the scientific name for the bay scallop, is a species in low supply but high demand on dinner tables across the Island and country. Utilizing a lot of science, a healthy dose of ingenuity, and some help from Mother Nature, fishermen and town shellfish departments, supported by a considerable investment of more than $700,000 in taxpayer dollars this year alone, help sustain a bay scallop fishery on Martha’s Vineyard that is worth more than $1 million annually, sometimes much more.

Last year, commercial scallopers hauled 8,814 bushels baskets of the tasty mollusks out of local waters, according to figures reported by town shellfish departments in the five Island towns where scallops are harvested. The catch was worth $846,144 at an estimated wholesale price of $12 per pound of shucked scallops.

Depending on the size of the eye, or scallop muscle, on average one bushel produces about eight pounds. The price at wholesale and retail levels fluctuates dramatically during the season, as demand rises and falls.

Thousands of recreational scallopers used dip nets, scallop drags, snorkels and scuba gear to harvest another 1,131 bushels of bay scallops. At an estimated retail price of $18 per pound, that’s $162,864 worth of scallops that went into freezers, straight onto the supper table, got bartered for other goods and services, or were given as a cherished holiday gift.

The 2013 annual town reports provide a breakdown of commercial and recreational (family) shellfish license sales. Recreational or family license holders are generally limited to less than one bushel of clams, oysters or scallops per week. Fees vary for residents and non-residents.

Edgartown issued 20 commercial shellfish permits ($350 fee) in 2013, and 33 free commercial permits to residents over the age of 60; 306 resident family permits ($50 fee), and 632 free family permits for residents over the age of 60; 129 non-resident family permits ($250) and 119 one week non-resident licenses ($50).

Oak Bluffs issued 10 commercial licenses ($350 fee); 323  resident senior licenses ($5), 220 resident licenses ($40 fee), 47 free family licenses to veterans;  and 79 combined non-resident permits for various time periods that ranged in cost from $30 for one week to $400 for one year.

Tisbury issued 25 commercial shellfish permits ($350); 284 resident family permits ($40); 196 senior permits ($5), 5 non-resident family permits ($400) and an additional 190 non-resident weekly and monthly short-term permits.

Chilmark issued 22 commercial shellfish permits, and 162 resident recreational permits.

West Tisbury issued 15 commercial permits, and 55 recreational permits.

A breakdown of permits issued in Aquinnah was not available.

Money in mollusks

The estimated value of the commercial and recreational harvest last year, according to estimates, was just over $1 million, from a season considered poor to average by fishermen and shellfish constables in most towns.

For every dollar that goes into the pockets of scallopers, as much as $3 ripples into the Island economy, according to economic multiplier estimates used by state fishery regulators.

“The multiplier factor on fisheries is extremely high,” said Rick Karney, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG). “Fishermen tend to live here, buy gas here, get groceries here, get their boats fixed here.”

Paul Bagnall, shellfish constable and biologist for Edgartown, valued the bay scallop fishery another way. “Priceless,” he said.

Each year, Islanders wait with anticipation and hope as the season begins.

“Bay scallops — people go crazy,” Danielle Ewart, shellfish constable for Tisbury said. “Absolutely nuts.”

About nine out of every ten pounds of scallops harvested in Vineyard waters is shipped off-Island to mainland fish markets and restaurants, according to people familiar with the market.

At The Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven, Louis Larsen and his crew ship 400 to 500 pounds of bay scallops to Boston distributors every day during the first two months of the bay scallop season.

“We’re starting to slow down now,” Mr. Larsen said Monday, three days before Christmas.

He said bay scallops are in high demand in the first few weeks of the season at his retail counter. “It’s a good seller when it first happens.”

His brother, Edgartown Seafood owner Danny Larsen, deals only in local retail sales. He buys directly from scallop fishermen. “I got a few guys that catch me really nice scallops, I buy from them,” Mr. Larsen said.

Mr. Larsen said demand is the biggest factor in setting a price. He said scallops are probably the most popular item this time of year.

Stanley Larsen, owner of the Menemsha Fish Market in Chilmark, said he buys directly from six or seven scallop fishermen. “They’re all getting their limits pretty quick, it’s a good crop this year,” he said. “A little bit more affordable for the consumer.” Mr. Larsen sells locally and ships.

Helping hand

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are among the few places left where a sustained bay scallop fishery still exists. In other areas, such as Long Island Sound, Buzzards Bay, and Cape Cod, the once plentiful bay scallop harvest is sporadic and small. Even here, the harvest is a fraction of what it once was. This year, Aquinnah closed its commercial scallop season due to a lack of adult scallops.

“I started working for the town in 1984,” said Paul Bagnall, Edgartown shellfish constable and biologist. “We routinely sold about 180 licenses. Now we sell 80 to 100 licenses. Back in those days, a really good year was around 20,000 bushels. Now a good scallop year is around 5,000 to 6,000.

Beginning in the late 1980s the bay scallop fishery declined precipitously. No one is quite sure why, but Mr. Bagnall and Mr. Karney strongly suspect it has something to do with a decline in coastal water quality.

Over the years, the MVSG and town shellfish departments have developed propagation programs, growing bay scallops in a controlled hatchery environment, and releasing them in local waters. When bay scallops were plentiful in New England waters, Mother Nature helped smooth the boom and bust cycle in local fishing areas. Scallops in an early developmental stage could be carried in on tides from other areas, to repopulate a local fishery after a poor year. That does not happen any more.

“Scallops only live to be two years old,” Mr. Bagnall said. “So if you have two bad years in a row in the ponds, you’ve lost your scallop spawning population in that pond. If you put spawning stock out, by manipulating them in the hatchery, a couple million seed adds up, if it’s a bad year like last year. That’s when you really need a propagation program, because that’s when spawning stops.”

Paying the cost

Propagation programs come at a cost, but Vineyarders love their shellfish, and have shown a willingness to pay for the privilege of recreational and commercial shellfishing. Town meeting seats are sprinkled liberally with family and commercial permit holders.

In 2014, Island towns each contributed $35,000 to the MVSG, which also receives grants and state funds.

Mr. Karney said the group spends about $300,000 annually on various shellfish propagation programs, about $200,000 of that on bay scallops. Last year the group distributed more than 20 million scallop seed. Biologists don’t know how many survive to harvest size.

Taxpayers in the six Island towns contributed more than $786,000 this fiscal year to fund shellfish departments. Only West Tisbury does not have a scallop fishery. Local shellfish departments are responsible for propagation programs that, depending on the town, include clam and oyster programs, and enforcement of regulations.

For example, in the current fiscal year Edgartown budget, salaries for the three full-time and two seasonal workers total $201,012, and expenses for the department total $25,760. In separate warrant articles at their April town meeting, voters authorized $48,500 for a new oyster propagation project in Sengekontacket Pond, as well as $35,000 to fund the town’s share of the MVSG.

The price of bay scallops at the wholesale level, or at the fish store, is easily quantifiable. But those involved in the fishery say it is difficult to put a value on being one of the few places in the nation where anyone can get a recreational shellfish permit, and with a little (or a lot) of hard work, put a meal of bay scallops on the table.

“It’s historically boom or bust,” Mr. Karney said. “There’s a lot of excitement around that. It has kind of that gold rush aura about it. For a lot of Islanders, it represents independence, making money that’s not tied to catering to anybody else.”

Island towns issue more than 2,000 family or recreational shellfish permits each year. For some it is a cherished part of summer vacation to harvest clams for dinner; for others, it is several meals a week in the lean winter months when income is scarce.

“The benefit to the town is the 1,000 family permits that we sell,” Mr. Bagnall said of Edgartown. “Shellfish and natural resources are very high on the town’s agenda. We’re lucky, we have a huge amount of area to be able to develop these things.”

Hard work, good pay

Two weeks ago, Katie Thompson and Mark Sauer were waiting somewhat impatiently for the air temperature to nudge up another degree on Edgartown harbor. She is a flight attendant for Jet Blue, he is an Island builder. Both take time off from their regular jobs to scallop.

It was the first day of a regulation change, requiring that no scallop fishermen leave the dock until the air temperature reached 30 degrees. It is a measure to protect seed scallops, which can freeze and die before they are culled and returned to the water. The previous threshold was 28 degrees, the approximate freezing temperature of salt water. The extra two degrees gives the seed stock a little cushion, but that Friday, it was keeping about 10 boats from heading out to Cape Poge Pond to begin the day.

Edgartown regulations allow commercial fishermen to keep three struck 10-gallon wash baskets of scallops per day. The wash basket is slightly larger that the widely accepted steel bushel basket, or eight-gallon crate measure used in other Island towns.

Together, Ms. Thompson and Ms. Sauer can get a limit each day they go out. So far, the season is shaping up pretty well, with most people able to catch their limit in a couple of hours.

“It’s a great income, while it lasts,” Ms. Thompson said. “The (wholesale) price started at $18 a pound, then it went down as low as $11, and it’s back up to $16. In three or four hours, we can make $600 to $700.”

Scalloping is hard work. Very hard work: towing and hauling scallop drags, culling through the haul to separate seed scallops from adult scallops. Anyone can get a commercial license, but not everyone is cut out for a December day on the water when the wind picks up and the temperature dips. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Ms. Thompson said. “It can be rough out there. When I’m up in the air and it gets really rough, I’m not scared. When it gets rough on the water, it’s a little dicey. It’s not like everybody can do it.”

It can also be a fickle income. If scallops are plentiful, the price goes down. If the harvest is down, they are harder to catch, and there are fewer to sell.

“When it’s good, it can be most of my income,” said John “Con” Conlon, who has fished Edgartown waters for 36 years. “Everybody has to have something else. Two years ago, it was half the price it is now.”

In Lagoon Pond, Mike Maseda had just arrived at the landing with his daily commercial limit, three bushels, to be checked by Ms. Ewart. The recreational limit is one bushel per week.

“They’re getting a little harder to find, but they’re still out there,” Mr. Maseda said.

Managing the scallop population in the Lagoon is a tricky thing. Last year, Ms. Ewart closed a large portion of the salt pond early in the season, because fishermen were pulling up too many seed scallops and not enough adults.

“A lot of people were upset with me, but I had to do what I had to do,” Ms. Ewart said. “They were coming in with large seed, so I closed it down. This year, this is where they’re all fishing, in the area I closed last year. Closing things down lets Mother Nature do her thing.”

Fickle fishing

Aquinnah is a good example of how mercurial the bay scallop fishery can be. For the past two years, fishermen have taken an abundance of scallops out the Aquinnah side of Menemsha Pond, so much so that the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries granted the town an extension to fish well into the spring. This past summer, fishermen predicted another good harvest, based on the amount of seed they observed in the water. But when it was time to open the commercial season, test drags landed very few adult shellfish ready for harvest. The town’s shellfish committee decided to close the Aquinnah side to scalloping.

On the Chilmark side of Menemsha pond, there seem to be plenty of scallops for harvesting, further confounding those trying to figure out what is happening.

“We looked at a lot of stuff, considered a lot of stuff,” Mr. Karney said. “There are very few scallop diseases that would do that kind of a thing. If it was a disease, it would also be on the Chilmark side. It’s possible there could be a toxic spill, but that seems pretty unlikely. The shells I looked at didn’t look like a predation issue. They were concerned about some algae, we sent that off to Roger Williams University, they said there was no indication that it would have any toxic effects.”

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) works in conjunction with the town on propagation programs and management of the fishery. Tribal natural resources director Bret Stearns said the economic impact of the closure is significant.

“The community gets hit by hundreds of thousand of dollars, easily,” Mr. Stearns said. “The trickle down economy of scallopers is actually robust. People are upset, and trying to find other means of income. People set aside time to do it, especially this time of year, and they really depend on that income.”

Mr. Stearns said the length of the scalloping season, predator control, and the amount of seed released in the pond are all issues that need to be examined closely. “We need to figure out how to work more closely together in monitoring throughout the year, not just before the season starts,” he said. “It’s better for people to know early.”