Scallopers are hard at work on the Tisbury side of Lagoon Pond. This is cause for some celebration in my town.
After several poor years, commercial fishermen are earning several hundred dollars a day and recreational scallopers are enjoying one of the delicacies of Island waters — and stocking their freezers too.
I had my first scallop dinner of the new season, which opened at the beginning of November. But first I had to shuck my bushel basket of freshly harvested scallops.
Basically, to shuck a scallop you hold the shell, insert the thin rounded end of the dull blade of a scallop knife into the hinge, and scrape the blade along the roof of the shell to sever the top of the muscle. Flip the shell out of the way in one deft movement. Then use the knife and your thumb to pinch the guts of the scallop and in a quick movement pull the whole snotty mess away from the pulsing muscle. Slide the knife under the muscle, and flip the scallop into a bowl.
Well, stalking the blue-eyed scallop is one thing, but removing it from its shell is quite another. I learned that the first time I went scalloping.
All I had to do was shuck one bushel harvested that morning. No problem, I told my wife Norma. I attacked the scallops one by one. But the pile of shells clicking and clacking in the cold on the tailgate of my truck seemed oblivious to my efforts to make it shrink.
A friend drove by and waved. I raised my hand but my fingers refused to unfurl from my scallop-shucking-grip. I made a crumpled wave. That bushel took about four hours to shuck. I’m speedier now. But one hears that in the heydey of scalloping, a skilled shucker always kept a shell in the air, and got through a bushel in less than one hour.
There are two common methods used to harvest scallops. I prefer the dipnet. Best done wading at low tide, the scalloper searches for scallops on the bottom with a peep sight, a glass-bottomed box. See a scallop and scoop it up with a long-handled net.
The other method is dragging. The shellfisherman tows a net basket built around a rectangular metal frame. The bottom of the basket is made up of large chain rings and a bar that flips the scallops into the basket as it is hauled along the bottom.
Once a tow is complete the drag is winched aboard and its contents dumped onto a culling board. The scalloper moves quickly to pick out adult scallops, those with an obvious growth ring, from everything else that has been swept up off the bottom. The remainder, rocks, weed, small fish, broken shells and any seed scallops, is swept off the culling board back into the water.
All of that hard work has a reward. The best way to truly appreciate the sweet taste of the noble Island bay scallop is freshly shucked and raw. It is a luxury of island living.
But the scallop harvest is fickle. It varies from year to year and town to town, depending on weather, water quality, and a host of other environmental factors.
According to the state Division of Marine Fisheries, Cape Cod and Island waters are at the limit of the bay scallop's range. And although scallops grow rapidly and are capable of spawning at one year, the majority of scallops spawn only once within their short two-year life span, which makes them susceptible to overfishing.
With the exception of West Tisbury, all of the towns on Martha’s Vineyard support a scallop fishery. But, despite an investment of considerable taxpayer dollars and physical effort to raise and nurture scallops from hatchery to planting in town bays and ponds, there is no way to guarantee that Mother Nature will always cooperate.