There is something magical about this time of year. The holidays, gathering with family and friends, extra focus on gratitude and blessings, making or buying gifts, baking and eating delicious food, and of course, harvesting from the sea. No season is perfect without a harvest from the sea.
While bluefish, albies, bonito, and most of the stripers may have swum south for the winter, our Island waters are teeming with shellfish that are mature, in season, and ready to be eaten.
Local bay scallops are a delicacy, loved by most, and taste even better when you harvest them yourself.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I caught up with Chris Edwards, the hatchery and facilities manager at the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. Chris is an avid fisherman in addition to growing shellfish to seed in our Island waters.
We met in Edgartown at Sengekontacket Pond, home to scallops, oysters, and clams, as well as other Island shellfish. The afternoon was beautiful, sunny, and above freezing. The light was illuminating the marsh grasses in a deep gold that was truly breathtaking. Though I always love warm days and standing in the surf with a rod in my hand, as I looked out over Senge in the afternoon light, I breathed in the salt air and felt pure gratitude for the beauty of our Island.
Part of the beauty of the Vineyard is our ability to eat local foods, because we have so many sources to purchase or harvest Island-grown vegetables, fish, meats, grains, fruits, and herbs. Chris has probably grown about 4 million seed scallops in a year. Yes, four MILLION!
At the Shellfish Group, Chris begins each year with the spawning season, then carefully watches over and cares for the microscopic bay scallops and other shellfish as they grow into “seeds.”
Seed scallops are anywhere from half a millimeter to one-and-a-half millimeters. To give me some perspective, Chris reached down and picked up a grain of sand. “A seed scallop is about this big,” he said, extending the tiny speck of sand my way. I was grateful I had my glasses on.
“Watching scallops grow is cool,” said Chris. “When they’re about a millimeter, you can see their colors. You can see them begin to clap and swim.”
The Shellfish Group distributes its scallop seed to our Island towns, which then distribute them to their chosen locations. Scallops have a short lifespan compared with clams and oysters. The average Vineyard bay scallop lives three years. “What we’re fishing for today is scallops who have gone through two growing seasons,” said Chris. “Scallops spawn in July, grow through the summer, and grow the following summer. Then we fish for them that second fall and winter.”
Scalloping is easy and fun, requires little equipment, and provides spectacular times on the water to enjoy the changing seasons. You’ll need a dip net, a peep sight, a floating basket, elbow gloves, a 2-inch measuring tool, a license/permit, and a pair of waders or a wetsuit. Chris wore a wetsuit. He was braver than I’ll ever be in cold winter waters.
“The wetsuit lets me get into some deeper areas,” said Chris, though I think he might have been laughing at my wimpiness.
I asked Chris about raking, as I’d done with clams and oysters, and he said raking can damage the scallops. Their shells are not as hard or as thick as clams or oysters. A dip net is a long, narrow net on the end of a six-foot pole. Scallops sit on the bottom, visible with your peep sight or swim goggles. You slowly move your net along the bottom, and scoop the scallops into the net. Those elbow gloves help to keep your arms and hands dry as you reach into your net and put your keeper scallops into your floating basket, or toss the small ones back.
A keeper scallop must be at least two inches across. If you look carefully at the scallop shell, you should be able to see two growth lines, or bumps marking two growth seasons. If you can’t see the lines clearly, run your fingers over the shell, and feel for a bump that runs perpendicular to the shell’s ridges.
Once you’ve filled your quota, it’s time to shuck your scallops. “They’re not hard to shuck, because unlike oysters and clams, they don’t tightly shut their shells. All you need is a thin blade to open the scallop and cut the abductor muscle,” said Chris.
“They are tasty, nice and sweet. A great little protein,” said Chris with the smile of a fisherman holding his fresh catch.
Before you wade into the water, decide where you’re going, and then visit that town’s website. You will need a permit, as well as knowledge of rules and regulations, including harvest limits, for each town. They do vary by town, so if you want to harvest in multiple locations, do your research first.
Here’s a quick glance and local links to get you started:
Chilmark’s recreational/family season — for dip nets only — started on Oct. 2, and runs through March 31. Get all the info you need here: chilmarkma.gov/shellfish-department.
Edgartown’s recreational bay scallop season started on Oct. 1, and runs through March 31. You can harvest up to one level 10-gallon wash basket per week, including shells. For more information and permits, visit: edgartown-ma.us/departments/shellfish .
Oak Bluffs has many shellfishing locations, and their dates and rules vary. Be sure to check out the town website for detailed information: oakbluffsma.gov/159/Shellfish-Department.
Vineyard Haven also has many ponds and locations for harvesting scallops, each with different dates, and also times of day, you’re allowed to harvest. It also has areas with experimental eelgrass growing, and no scalloping is allowed there. Visit the website for more information: tisburyma.gov/shellfish.
West Tisbury is best known for its oysters. If you’re going to try your luck at scalloping, click here for town info: westtisbury-ma.gov/shellfish-advisory-committee.
Now is a great time to join the M.V. Surfcasters. Its next meeting is Monday, Dec. 4, at 7 pm at the Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown. John Piekos from the MV Beachgoers Access Group will be speaking. John is going to give an update on what MV BAG is doing, the current status of continued beach access on Chappy, and he’ll present ways everyone who loves Chappy can use their voice to support current and future access to all our beloved Chappy beaches. You can check out MVB AG on Facebook at bit.ly/FB_MVBAG, or its website, mvbag.org.
I hope to see you on the beach, bundled up, or at the Surfcasters’ meeting on Monday.