Nantucket’s Sweetest Crop -November/December 2009

The Nantucket bay scallop is recognized around the world

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Jim Powers and Nicole Harnishfeger

As iconic as the island’s rich whaling history and well-preserved architecture, the Nantucket bay scallop is recognized around the world. It’s prepared in the kitchens of five-star restaurants, and prominently featured in the glass-front display cases of gourmet markets from New York to San Francisco.

There is no substitute. Sea scallops don’t have the same sweet flavor, nor do the calico scallops from Florida that annually flood the market. Some nefarious chefs have even tried punching out skate wings with a cookie cutter, attempting to pass them off as true Nantucket bays to the uninitiated. The difference is immediately obvious.

The succulent shellfish is harvested from the waters just off the island by family scallopers for their own tables starting at the beginning of October, and by the island’s commercial fleet from November through March.

Life on an island is naturally defined by the water, and scalloping is one of the few remaining things that annually remind us of that connection. Whether we head out once during family season in search of a bushel to serve for a couple of meals, help harvest the majority of the catch that winds up on tables around the island – and the country – during commercial season, or simply enjoy the fruits of that labor, scalloping is quintessentially Nantucket.

“It’s a very strong part of island culture. It’s great being on the water, being outside. It’s so beautiful, every day. Yet there are moments of beauty interspersed with moments of terror. You’re in the harbor, but it can get bloody rough in the harbor. There are definitely moments of excitement,” said Marina Finch, one of the island’s few female commercial scallopers and a former member of the town’s Shellfish and Harbor Advisory Board.

“It definitely extends beyond the financial for me. It’s something you can really do only on Nantucket. It’s very special, and I want to do it while I’m still able to do it. I don’t know that it will last forever.”

The Nantucket bay-scallop fishery, the last remaining in the world of any commercial significance – has seen its success ebb and flow over the past three decades, buffered by both economic and ecological storms. Back in 1980, commercial scallopers harvested 120,000 bushels. In 2007 they hauled in just 3,860. It’s too early to tell how this year’s commercial harvest will fare, but several signs point to at least modest success.

Back at the beginning of October, family scallopers took to Nantucket and Madaket harbors with pushrakes and viewboxes in hand, and there was optimism in the air. For the first time in several years, there were plenty of scallops to be had in the shallows. It was a far cry from last year, when those hoping to bring home enough for a meal on opening day could barely scrounge up an appetizer’s worth, and the season didn’t get much better from then on.

In the first few weeks of family season this year, however, many scallopers were harvesting their bushel-per-week limit in an hour or two, and half-bushel hauls were commonplace in under an hour.

While it’s practically impossible to predict the success of a commercial scallop season by a couple weeks of family scalloping, fishermen and marine scientists are cautiously optimistic about this year’s commercial harvest as well, which opens Nov. 2.

Humble beginnings

Bay scallops were not always considered a delicacy. In fact, the first European settlers of the island treated them as poisonous, and in the early 1800s, they were used as bait for cod-fishing. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that they became popular, and islanders quickly realized Nantucket was surrounded by a valuable commodity, literally waiting each season to be scooped off the bottom and shipped to the mainland to be sold at a premium.

The only part of the scallop eaten is the single large adductor muscle, leading to fewer illnesses due to bacterial or viral diseases, and fewer shellfish-bed closings sometimes common with other mollusks whose digestive organs are also eaten.

Once shucked and ready for market, scallops are a pearly, almost translucent white, nearly an inch in diameter and a little over an inch long, and roughly circular in shape. Like most shellfish, scallops are most tender when raw, and are often sautéed for just a few seconds in butter, white wine and garlic. They can be enjoyed in a spicy Latin American ceviche style. They can also be broiled, fried, baked, or – a particular favorite at Nantucket cocktail parties – wrapped in bacon.

“As an ingredient, it is hard to find an equal to the scallop, which is incredibly versatile in the raw state, and crosses over into the kitchen equally well when cooked simply to caramelize. The signature natural sweetness is unique. Nantucket scallops are a true local treasure,” said Angela Raynor, co-owner of The Boarding House, The Pearl and Corazon del Mar with her husband Seth. “We love working with scallops and over the years have served literally thousands of them at culinary and charity events. People always get in line to check out how we are presenting scallops this year.” 

A short biology lesson

The bay scallop’s Latin name is Argopecten irradians. For a little over a century, from the mid-1870s to the early 1980s, bay scallops were harvested commercially along the East Coast in Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina, and on a smaller scale in many of the states in between and Florida. But shrinking habitat, overfishing and pollution eventually led to the bay scallop’s decline, and today it only exists in any true commercially-harvestable population on Nantucket.

There are more than 200 species of scallops around the world, including several varieties of bay scallop. The bay scallop’s primary habitat is eel grass, to which it attaches itself and which has traditionally thrived on the floor of Nantucket Harbor, although it has been threatened in recent years by pollution and fertilizer run-off. Scallops can also swim to search for food by opening and closing their shells. As the shell snaps shut, a stream of water jets out and the scallop moves forward. They grow faster than oysters or clams, and live for a much shorter time, typically just two years.

The scalloper’s life

Many of the island’s long-time commercial scallopers are following in a family tradition passed down from generation to generation. But they are getting older, and in the recent boom years, not nearly as many young men have followed their fathers and uncles out onto the water each fall and winter, leading some to wonder whether scalloping on Nantucket is a dying art.

On the other hand, the recent economic turmoil sweeping not just the island but the nation may force some islanders back to the water in order to make ends meet. Commercial fishing has always been more popular when the work ashore is no longer as lucrative – or even available – as is the case for many in the building trades these days. Even when times are good, many Nantucketers have taken to the water for at least part of the season to pay for Christmas presents, winter vacations or to cover bills during the lean months.

The Marine Department issued 169 commercial scallop licenses last year and 1,640 recreational permits, with those numbers about the same as of mid-October this year. Given the struggling economy, however, no one would be surprised if the number of commercial licenses sold this year ends up even higher.

The scalloper’s life is by no means an easy one. They rise before dawn to be on the water by 6:30 a.m., and unless the temperature drops below 28 degrees or the wind is howling, they set out in

small, open-decked boats, frequently alone, or with just a partner to help them haul their dredges. To find scallops they must understand the complex, ever-changing contours of the harbor floor, though most have never seen it. There’s also the risk of snagging another scalloper’s dredge, a costly and time-consuming setback.

“It’s very complex. There is so much to it with the natural changes in each season. November fishing is very different from March fishing,” said Finch, who got her start with long-time scalloper Neil Cocker – “a legend,” Finch said – about a decade ago and bought her first boat about five years ago.

On the positive side, in banner years they are often back at the dock and enjoying a cup of hot coffee by 9 a.m., secure in the knowledge that they’ve just hauled in several hundred dollars worth of succulent shellfish.

Scallop prices in recent years have fluctuated between $9 and $14 a pound to the fishermen. Each box of scallops yields about eight pounds of shucked scallop meat. Fishermen are allowed five boxes each per day, with a maximum two scallopers per boat. Five boxes of scallops means about $400 a day to the scalloper.

“I’ve never not been able to make a living since I started, but some years are better than others. When it’s good, it can be great, but when it’s not, it can be awful rough,” Finch said.

While not exactly territorial, scallopers are protective of their favorite fishing grounds. Even family scallopers are hesitant to reveal their favorite spots. They hit the water, often alone or with a friend or family member, with rakes and waders, wire baskets and inner-tubes.

A few of the more adventurous will pull on wetsuits, flippers and a snorkel to scour the bottom for their scallops. Many frequent the same spot year after year, for decades. Those who’ve hit the mother lode won’t tell a soul where their bounty is coming from.

The same is true for commercial scallopers, although their vessels are a little easier to spot out on the water. Commercial scallopers haul their catch from the bottom with dredges dragged behind their boats. One woman was known to avoid the scalloper’s traditional thick orange gloves when she sorted the catch on her family’s boat. If she and her husband found a good spot, she didn’t want the bright colors of her rapidly-moving hands to tip off the rest of the fleet.

Yet scallopers take care of their own, too. They are quick to offer assistance if an engine beaks down or gear is lost, and on occasion have even helped out those less fortunate in the fleet with a few bushels here and there.

“Pre-Boarding House, I ran Provisions for a year, and spent the winter feeding the scallopers working out of the Straight Wharf Fish Store. The experience gave me a season-long window into the culture of scalloping on-island: the hardworking fishermen, the shuckers, the camaraderie and competition among them. It was really fascinating to connect that with an ingredient on such a close level,” Raynor said. “People talk a lot about farm-to-table dining and understanding where your food comes from. With bay scallops, Nantucketers are at the source. That is a treasure to protect and keep as a legacy for generations to discover.”

Once the scallop boat is back at the dock, the day is not yet over. When the scallops in their shells are brought ashore, they are taken to a shucking shanty, where they wait to be opened. With three quick flicks of a knife blade, veteran shuckers open the shells, separate the meat and discard the slime. It’s a repetitive, occasionally painful job, but the best shuckers can go through thousands of shellfish a day. And the industry couldn’t survive without them.

“Your boat is hopefully supporting yourself and your opener. A lot of local people open. It’s how they get their Christmas money, how they get through the winter. A lot of people augment their income by opening,” said Finch. “It’s a part of island life.”

Boom and bust

The scallop fishery has been on a roller-coaster ride in recent years, but one thing is fairly certain. The 1980 season, when 450 scallopers fished the waters off Nantucket and hauled in 120,000 bushels, is long gone. The harvest dropped to an all-time low of 3,860 bushels in 2007 before rebounding strongly to nearly 17,000 bushels in 2008. It dropped back to 9,000 bushels when the final counts were tallied this April. It’s a cycle that has played itself out before. A decade ago, after harvesting just under 7,000 bushels in 1998, fishermen hauled in around 15,000 in 1999 and 2000, and 16,000 in 2001.

A massive amount of research into the boom and bust nature of the scallop fishery has been performed by the Maria Mitchell Association and Nantucket Marine Department, and a number of shellfish propagation programs over the years have been implemented in an attempt to bolster the annual harvest. But for the most part, the jury is still out on the future success of that work.

Fishermen and marine scientists each have their reasons for the ebb and flow of the fishery. Some blame the down years on overfishing or the loss of eel-grass habitat due to fertilizer run-off and boat pollution, while others simply attribute it to the cyclical nature of harbor ecology and the scallop’s life-cycle. The bottom line? No one is really sure.

“Bay scallops have long been a commercially important species in Massachusetts waters, making natural fluctuations in their abundance cause for conversation and concern. Many fishermen historically have depended on abundant scallop harvests to provide their yearly income, only to be disappointed or devastated when the scallop abundance has not matched expectations. Bad years have followed good ones, and good years have followed bad ones. It is unclear why a poor set may follow an abundant harvest year, since a high yield in one year suggests enough adults should exist to sustain the population prior to harvest. Similarly, no one knows where an abundant set comes from following years of low harvest when presumably few adults are present to provide seed,” wrote Orleans shellfish biologist Sandra MacFarlane in a 1999 research paper for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and the Southeastern Massachusetts Aquaculture Center.

The great “nub” debate

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain. Harvesting immature scallops can only hurt the fishery. Determining a legally-harvestable scallop, however, can be tricky. The growth ring, not the size, indicates whether a scallop is an adult that has already gone through its one lifetime spawning. Scallops must have a raised, pronounced growth ring to be considered adults.

“Nubs” are how islanders refer to scallops that are as large as normal adult scallops but do not have a growth ring. Nubs dominated the harbor last year, which led to a contentious new state rule mandating that a scallop’s growth ring be at least 10 millimeters from the hinge for it to be harvestable.

The so-called “10-millimeter” rule marked the state’s first intervention in Nantucket scalloping regulations and touched off a firestorm of debate, led by scallopers who said they would be forced to abandon the season just a week in if the rule were not changed. To ease the fishermen’s economic burden, an emergency state regulation authorized the harvesting of scallops that were 2.5 inches in diameter with under-10-millimeter growth rings. While the 2.5-inch rule was a relief for desperate fishermen and stressed wardens, it didn’t come without drama.

A group of fishermen retained the services of highly-connected attorney Robert B. Crowe, an island summer resident. With assistance from state Executive Office of Energy and Environment head Ian Bowles, state Sen. Robert O’Leary and U.S. Senator John Kerry, Crowe encouraged fast passage of the emergency regulation. Boats immediately returned to the water and fishermen hauled enough scallops to keep the fishery afloat through an otherwise mediocre season.

Despite the dismal start and regulatory maneuvering, strictly by the numbers, the 2008-2009 scallop season ended up being about average for commercial bay-scallopers. Those career fishermen who stayed out from start to finish managed to earn a living during the season that ended with a total haul of roughly 9,000 bushels. Wholesale scallop prices, however, stayed around $11 per pound after failing to see the typical end-of-the-season price jump due by most estimations to the economic downturn.

But hope springs eternal. The early-fall weather on Nantucket was beautiful this year, and family scallopers were out in droves on many days, filling their bushels. Even some grizzled veterans of the commercial fleet seemed more optimistic than usual. But as any good fishermen knows, only the first couple hauls of the dredge will reveal the truth.

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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