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Nantucket Bay Scallop Season Does Well, and It Wasn't Luck

Courtesy photo

It’s the last week of commercial scalloping season on Nantucket, and Max Perkins is shoveling snow out of his dad’s scallop boat at the Children’s Beach boat ramp.

The recent spring blizzard had kept the island’s fleet out of the water for 48 hours, but Max and his father Blair Perkins want to squeeze one last day out of the season.

Perkins boat is a 22-foot Mako that he calls Oldsquaw. We’re headed out past the Brant Point lighthouse to an area of the harbor known as the "Horse Shed." By the time we arrive, there are already six scallop boats with their dredges in the water.  

“The Horse Shed," Blair Perkins said, "is just notorious for very deep grass on it and it takes a good northerly storm, north northwest, to blow the grass off and expose the nice scallops in here”

Despite losing 26 days of fishing to cold temperatures and winter storms, Nantucket fishermen landed 14,500 bushels of scallops during the five-month season, less than last year, but generally considered a successful harvest and an indicator of a stable population.

That's good news because for many on Nantucket, the bay scallop fishery provides a paycheck during the slow winter months when the tourists are gone, and the island economy slows to a crawl.

“It’s been a great year," Perkins said. "The weather was a little iffy for, you know,  for stretches, but overall the price was up. Now it’s $15, but  it was $12, $13, $14, through most of the season.  And of course, that’s what it should be anyway, it should never go down below $10 at least. But there was good stock.”

Nantucket scalloper Blair Perkins empties one of his dredges onto a culling board, where he will sort the mature scallops from the young seed scallops, which he returned to the water.

A bushel is roughly the size of a milk crate, and each licensed scalloper is allowed to take up to five bushels per day during the commercial season. With a wholesale price of $15 per pound, a scalloper can bring home as much as $300 to $400 per day after expenses.

This year island fishermen were landing scallops in Nantucket’s two harbors, and off Tuckernuck, the small island just to the west of Nantucket. That’s where Perkins spent the first few months of the season.

“It was great at Tuckernuck," Perkins said. "We were out there, there were two boats fishing it, then I came in, and there were only about seven of us out there for quite a few weeks. No one had really discovered it yet. Then all the sudden everyone in town figured it out and then the whole fleet went out there.”

The scallop fishery represents a multi-million dollar boost to the island economy, so to protect the population, the town of Nantucket prohibits fishing when the temperature falls below 28 degrees. That prevents young shellfish from freezing after they’re dredged up and sorted on a culling board. This year’s cold weather and storms meant the island’s fleet lost nearly a month’s worth of fishing.

But the protections are in place for good reason. Wild bay scallops are extremely rare.

“Nantucket has one of the last surviving bay scallop populations and commercial fisheries," said Tara Riley, the town of Nantucket’s shellfish biologist. Riley is the woman behind the island’s ambitious scallop propagation program, an effort to increase the population by breeding scallops for the benefit of both the species and Nantucket fishermen.

“So when we spawn the scallops in the hatchery," Riley said, "they shoot out their eggs and the sperm as well, and we manually fertilize them, so then they hatch out within 24 hours into what we call larvae. So we hold them in the hatchery for 10 days,  and then on the 10th day, they undergo a metamorphosis, where they’re getting ready to set, which means they’re swimming around and they’re looking to attach. In the wild, they’d be looking to attach to eel grass, so that’s the point we want to release them.”

Between May and August, Riley releases millions of the bay scallop larvae back into the harbor. The results of this effort are difficult to measure,  but the island’s harbors have produced a relatively stable crop of scallops since the program was founded in 2009.

“What we strive to see is something a little more consistent," she said, "we’d like to see between 15,000 to 25,000 bushels per year. That tells us our program is doing well and we can support a certain number of fishermen for a certain bushel count for every year.”

Nantucket bay scallops, dredged from the shallow waters off Tuckernuck island, shown here on the culling board of Blair Perkins' scallop boat, the Oldsquaw.

For scallopers like Perkins, the effort to boost the population is welcome.

“I really think it’s been doing some good," Perkins said. "How can it not? You’re putting seed scallops out in the harbor. As long as the water quality is good enough to support them there’s no reason why they shouldn’t survive.”

Perkins and his son fished for a few more hours and landed enough scallops to fill some orders before calling it a day, and a season.