Nantucket's Bay Scallop Fishery a Traditional Harvest Struggling to Survive

Nov 21, 2018

Bay scalloper Blair Perkins setting up a dredge as he looks for scallops in Madaket Harbor.
Credit Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI

The commercial bay scallop season opened on Nantucket at the beginning of November and will run through the end of March, but for bay scallopers, this year’s harvest is already looking to be pretty lean.

Out in Madaket harbor on the western-most edge of Nantucket, scalloper Blair Perkins is throwing out a test dredge, and scanning his catch for the iconic bivalve that seems to be getting scarcer and scarcer in a net full of shells, crabs and spanish moss. 

"It's been a terrible season, I've been scalloping for thirty odd years, since the 80s off and on, and this is the worst year I've seen it, ever," Perkins said. 

Bay scalloping has never been an easy job - to do it right requires a fisherman to be out on the water during the coldest time of the year, and it’s a lot of physical work for, sometimes, not much reward. Perkins drags a mesh bag attached to a string into the water and will pull it up periodically to dump out the catch. Usually, he’ll pull up about 20 scallops in each dredge, but since the season opened this month, he’s pulling up more like 10 to 15 in a catch. While at its peak in the 1980s, bay scallopers would bring in about a hundred thousand bushels of scallops a season. By comparison, this season's catch is predicted to be around five thousand. 

These scallops are particularly sensitive to water quality changes, and most importantly, they rely on the harbor’s eel grass for their spawn to grow. Scientists credit water pollution, which has stifled eel grass, as a primary reason for the decline in bay scallops. Nantucket town biologist Tara Riley explained. 

"So the pressures are additional nutrients in the water, septic systems overloading, increased ferry traffic. All these things come down to water quality," she said. 

The town’s been working to restore eel grass habitats around the island, but Riley is still worried that the tradition of bay scalloping, something Nantucketers have done over the winter since the 1800s, is drawing less fishermen today. 

"There aren’t a lot of young people that are getting involved," Riley said. "It’s not a dependable way to make your income in the winter, so you have to have options, you can’t just put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to the bay scallop fishery."

This year’s season is another in a downward trend. Jim Sjolund and his father, Carl Sjolund are a multigenerational bay scalloping family, and both admit that being a bay scalloper has gotten much harder in the past years. On this particular day, the two went out around six in the morning and came back after noon with their catch limit. Carl Sjolund said back when he was younger, the industry seemed healthier.

"We had a phenomenal year in 69...you’d catch your limit every day by 9am and catch your limit," he said. 

The limit is 10 bushels, or about a thousand scallops for two fishermen. And for wholesalers like Ted Jennison, he hopes the industry can find a way to continue. His company, Nantucket Seafoods, ships scallops across the country, to New York, Chicago and as far as California, and he says there’s nothing quite like a Nantucket Bay Scallop.

"They’ve gotten to be known as the best scallop in the world, bar none," Jennison said. "The flavor, they’re like candy."

But these days, he worries that in addition to declining catches, the average bay scalloper is getting older.

"The average age of people in the industry, I bet we’re about 60. I don’t know if people want to work this hard anymore," he said. 

But scallopers like Blair Perkins and the Sjolunds are optimistic about the work Nantucket is doing to restore scallop habitats, and Carl Sjolund believes scalloping has too much history to vanish.

"Every where you go you see a scallop shell, it’s just been historic here for a hundred years," he said. 

Plus, he says scalloping is in his family’s blood.

"It’s a way of life, and I enjoy doing it, and I know Jim does," he said. 

He said that as long as there are bay scallops to catch in Nantucket sound, there will be bay scallopers to catch them.