National Fisherman

Island out of season

Nantucket's historic bay scallop fishery has been in decline for many years. Is this the end, or just the end of a cycle?

By Mark Merchant

For 30 years, Martin "Martie" Mack has greeted the opening day of Nantucket Island's scallop season as bright-eyed and happy as only a fisherman can be. But opening day of the current season instead has Mack and roughly 60 other longtime scallopers facing the fact that the fishery, considered by many to be in a long decline, may finally be fished out. For years the Nantucket scallop fishery has been off-again with catches varying from abysmal to bountiful.

Up at 3:30 a.m. on the mound of sand no more than 110 feet high, sitting some 30 miles off the Massachusetts mainland, Mack leaves his slip at Straight Wharf on opening day before anyone else in the fleet. On the water it is cold and desolate, but Mack sits in his boat and watches.

"I watch the birds, I watch the water, I watch what's going on in nature around me," Mack says.

But at 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, the business of scalloping begins. Mack — and whoever else happens to be out on the water on that or any other given Monday through Saturday until March 31 — drops his dredges, puts his 20-foot wooden boat in gear, and drags the bottom for the ribbed bivalve Argopecten irradians, the Atlantic bay scallop.

Mack has his opening-day limit of five bushels by 8:30 a.m. A good first day isn't unusual; even bad seasons tend to have good first days.

"It's what comes after that varies a lot," Mack says. In 2009-10, he kept his boat in the water until March 31 but didn't fish every day. Last season, Mack says, "wasn't very good but I have seen much, much worse seasons. It started out well but quickly went downhill."

The 2010-11 season is so bad that early on, Mack is ready to hang up the dredges and move on.

"I was talking to an old local who has been scalloping here for close to 40 years. He told me he has never seen it this bad before. He also told me that he's pretty certain that the industry is over and probably will never rebound. I fear he is correct in his assumption. This is no surprise to anyone. We saw it coming for several years now," Mack says.

In 30 years of scalloping, Mack remembers years when 100,000 bushels — or boxes — were landed. Now David Fronzuto, the town's marine superintendent, harbormaster and shellfish warden, believes a successful season is when the fishery produces 15,000 bushels between Nov. 1 and March 31.

While the past two seasons produced more than 18,000 bushels islandwide, in 2007-08 the fleet landed just 9,000 bushels. Demand, however, has inflated the price during the 2010-11 season. Historically, the price for Nantucket scallops runs from a low of $7 to a high of $11 per pound. The price this year is $15.

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