It’s a sweet scallop season

Debbie and John Smith have spent more than a dozen years scalloping together, and this season their bushels are full.

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From right, Debbie Manley Smith and John Smith have been scalloping together for over 12 years. They get up around 4 a.m. in the morning and head into Edgartown Harbor before going to their day jobs. —Rob Morrison

Debbie Manley Smith and her husband John wake up long before sunrise most weekdays during scallop season. They gather their orange foul-weather gear and head to Edgartown Harbor to board their 22-foot fishing boat.

John has had the old Aquasport since 1978, and converted it for scalloping. “The insurance company had it as a complete total when I bought it,” John said as he began to ready the well-used boat last Thursday morning. “It was the first fiberglass boat in the fleet in Edgartown, and they gave me a hard time about it,” he remembered.

It was about 6:40 and the sun was just coming through in shades of pink and orange. Debbie pulled her cellphone out of her pocket and walked to the end of the dock.

“Wait a minute,” she said, “I’ve got to get a picture of this for the guys on Facebook.”

Debbie said that John gets up at 4:30 am, and she lies in bed a few minutes longer, listening to him talk to the dogs. They live in Edgartown, and besides scalloping together over the past dozen years, the couple also work together at the Edgartown Prime Marina. Debbie works in the office, and John works on the boats.

The old Aquasport held a couple of small wire baskets and six plastic bushel baskets, three dredges on either side of the boat, and what looked like a dozen ropes suspended from a metal bar overhead.

“Hold on,” Debbie said as the boat started out of the harbor.

John steered toward Cape Pogue, and there were half a dozen similar boats headed in the same direction.

“Sure beats driving to Boston on Route 3 every morning,” he said.

John was watching a screen, which looked something like an Etch-A-Sketch drawing, to determine where to drop the dredges. He tugged on a pulley system, and the dredges disappeared into the water one at a time.

This year the scallops are plentiful, and they’ve been bringing in the limit each morning — three bushels for John and another three for Debbie.

Commercial scalloping can be a tricky business, John explained. Last season the scallops were scarce, and they only went out a dozen times. Their plan is to keep dredging for scallops at least until Christmas this year.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall confirmed this year’s early bounty. He’s received more than 100 applications for commercial shellfishing licenses this season; some of them belong to people over 60 who don’t have to pay the $350 for a license. Edgartown’s 2015 annual report noted that there were only 18 commercial shellfishing licenses issued last year, and 47 free licenses for residents over 60.

“If we do 5,000 bushels this season, that’s a good year,” Mr. Bagnall said. Each bushel will yield about 8 or 9 pounds of scallops, bringing in an average of $20 a pound at the local markets. “That’s close to a million dollars, and any money you can bring into the local economy multiplies that effect.”

The commercial scallop season in Edgartown runs from Nov. 1 to April 1. Because the weather was so cold last February, they lost the whole month, prompting the Edgartown shellfish committee to petition the State Division of Marine Fisheries to extend the season to April 30.

“It’s got to be 30° by 9 am,” Mr. Bagnall said. Any colder, and scallops freeze once they’re out of the water.

Edgartown, and particularly Cape Pogue, has historically been noted as healthy scallop ground. Linsey Lee, curator of oral history at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, has a recorded interview with Preston Averill as part of her “Vineyard Voices” collection. He describes how most of the roads in Edgartown were covered in scallop shells before they were paved.

An article in the Dukes County Intelligencer dated August 1992 reported, “When scallops were abundant, towns were more prosperous, and the spirits of adults and schoolchildren rose.”

The article also reveals that men typically didn’t bring their wives along while dredging for scallops until the 1930s and ’40s, estimating that “only one in 20 scalloped with his wife.” The article stated that the men brought their wives along to double their limit, and “to improve the family’s income.”

Most of the boats on Cape Pogue last week had two people on board, though Debbie and John appeared to be the only husband-and-wife team.

The couple stood on opposite sides of the culling board, John manning the lines that raise and lower the heavy dredging nets, and Debbie ready to help him empty the net onto the board.

“Watch your feet,” Debbie warned John as he navigated the lines piling up on the floor of the boat.

“I think about that on a constant basis, wondering how fast I could get over on that side and switch off the engine,” Debbie said, shaking her head. She worries about him getting tangled in the lines and pulled overboard.

John was born in Boston, but has lived on the Vineyard since the mid-1970s. Debbie was born on the Island and has lived here all her life. The couple said they’ve been together since 2003 or 2004 — they didn’t settle on the exact date while they were busy with the task at hand — and they’ve been scalloping together just as long.

They work in rhythm, emptying the dredge onto the culling board, filling the smaller wire baskets with scallops, sliding the eelgrass, crabs, and scallop seed off the culling board and back into the water. John dips the wire baskets full of scallops into the salt water for a rinse, and then he hands them to Debbie to pour into the bushel baskets until they’re full.

Debbie said a lot of people ask her how she manages to go dredging for scallops with her husband all those mornings.

“I love it,” she said. “My favorite time is when we go right into Cape Pogue, the peacefulness and the beauty of it.”

It only took a couple of hours to fill six bushels last Thursday. The scallops would be taken to the shuckers, and eventually sold to Net Result in Vineyard Haven.

“This is good,” Debbie said as the boat eased back into the dock. “We can get home and clean up, and be at work by 10.”