Martha’s Vineyard leads the Cape and Islands in bay scallop landings, beating Nantucket. The Vineyard’s commercial and recreational shellfishermen landed over 12,000 bushels this past season, and more are being landed. With three weeks still left in the season, Nantucket shellfishermen have landed 8,000 bushels. This makes the Vineyard the largest producer of wild bay scallops in the world.
Aquinnah leads the Island with landings at close to 4,000 bushels. Bret Stearns, natural resource director for the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah, said fishermen are still out there.
Chilmark had its largest bay scallop season in years. Shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer said that the fishermen landed 1,600 bushels last year, and there are still some out fishing this year.
Island shellfish constables track their bay scallop landings for a calendar year, even though the season starts in the fall, usually in October or November and ends March 31. The bulk of the bay scallops are harvested at the end of the year, and only a trickle comes in from January to March.
Edgartown, which usually leads the Island in bay scallop landings, came in second with 2,000 bushels. Paul Bagnall, shellfish constable for Edgartown, said: “It was mediocre at best. We limped around at a couple of thousand.”
While 2,000 bushels may seem like a lot, Edgartown used to lead the state and in one year got as many as 19,000 bushels.
Tisbury did well with 3,537 bushels. Oak Bluffs landed 1,092 bushels. Most of the two town’s totals came from Lagoon Pond. A few, but an increasing number, came from Sengekontacket and Lake Tashmoo.
Chilmark is reaping the best season in years. Mr. Scheffer said, “It was really good. We saw a lot more young people involved out there. It seemed more of a community. The fishermen were shucking together, helping each other out,” Mr. Scheffer said. “At times we saw roughly 30 people out on the pond. On average we’ve seen about 15 out there through December.”
In the previous season, there were only 600 bushels landed. Mr. Scheffer said that the yield per bushel was a pleasant surprise. Each bushel of bay scallops rendered nine pounds of meat.
A good part of Aquinnah’s success at 4,000 bushels is tied to a federally funded project administered and run by the tribe. The tribe is in the third year of a five year $247,000 bay scallop enhancement and restoration project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Mr. Stearns said that the bay scallop success in Aquinnah is directly linked to their aggressive program to find out what it takes to revitalize the fishery for the benefit of others. Three years ago Aquinnah fishermen landed only 600 bushels.
Using seed from the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, the project involved setting aside a portion of Menemsha Pond as a grow-out area. It included putting juvenile bay scallops in pearl nets suspended in the water column, harvesting predators, monitoring water quality, and trying to improve the eel grass beds in the pond. “This was a collaborative effort which included the town of Aquinnah and Chilmark, the shellfish group and others,” Mr. Stearns said. “The project goal is to give other communities ideas for revitalizing their natural bay scallop fisheries,” Mr. Stearns said.
Though the price paid the fisherman this winter was less than years past, because of the state of the economy, there was money to be made.
Mr. Stearns estimated that the 4,000 bushels that were landed in Aquinnah conservatively brought over $400,000 into the Aquinnah economy.
The effort to keep the bay scallop fishery a viable industry on the Island is a collaborative effort across the Island. Shellfish constables spend a good deal of their summer husbanding the juvenile bay scallops they receive from the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group hatchery on Lagoon Pond. All the towns but West Tisbury receive bay scallop seed from the hatchery.
Rick Karney, director of the shellfish group, said for 30 years the shellfish group has been in the business of raising juvenile bay scallops. “I can produce the seed, but the shellfish constables have to provide the nursery care,” Mr. Karney said.
The Oak Bluffs side of Sengekontacket Pond is showing new bay scallop growth. David Grunden, shellfish constable for Oak Bluffs, said: “Sengie is very positive. We saw a good set of bay scallops in the pond and we haven’t seen that for a number of years.”
Mr. Grunden said that the amount of bay scallops harvested in his town is about the same as the year before, but there were more commercial fishermen out harvesting. Mr. Grunden credits the economic slump for the increased turnout of fishermen. He said he knows of a number of shellfishermen who went bay scalloping because there was no other work.
Cape Pogue Pond on Chappaquiddick was closed in January to any additional bay scalloping. Paul Bagnall, shellfish constable, said the town has hired a small group of shellfishermen to move the young bay scallop seed that is in the shallow areas into deeper water. The intent is to not only keep the animals alive for next fall’s harvest, the town is looking for any way to encourage a better set this year, for future years in the pond. “This spring we will move seed from Cape Pogue into Sengekontacket Pond, into areas that were dredged this winter,” Mr. Bagnall said.
Every Island town has an aggressive program to make sure that the bay scallop fishery continues. “We are on the cutting edge of bay scallop propagation techniques,” said Mr. Bagnall. There is science being done here on the Island that is being done nowhere else. Last year the town hired a local commercial fisherman, Dennis Gazaille, to spawn bay scallops at the shellfish nursery being run by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group at Chappaquiddick Point. All the ponds, including Caleb’s Pond were stocked with juvenile bay scallops.
Beating Nantucket is a significant step for the Vineyard, but it also comes at a time when Nantucket did not do well. Though the past year the fishermen dragged up 8,000 bushels, two years ago they landed 16,500 bushels.
The wild oyster fishery on Martha’s Vineyard is in a state of rebuilding after being brought down more than ten years ago by the southern shellfish disease Dermo. West Tisbury had a short oyster season around the holidays. But a poor price at the market made the fishery more work than it was worth.
Chilmark and Edgartown opted not to have a season at all this winter. Instead, the shellfish departments have put their resources entirely into jump-starting the fishery.
While the bay scallop and oyster fisheries should be side by side in growth, Mr. Karney said Dermo was a significant setback. “We essentially lost a dozen years when we had Dermo, which is a horrible shellfish disease, that devastated the oyster population,” Mr. Karney said. Dermo is a disease that brings no harm to humans, but it gradually decimated the oysters growing in all the Island’s great ponds. “Dermo devastated the oyster fisheries in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays,” Mr. Karney said. Fortunately, with some help from the shellfish group, there is a more resistant strain of oysters arising amid the Dermo infected waters. The new oysters are resistant and gradually coming back. “It isn’t the magic bullet, but it is one of the magic bullets that will bring the stocks back,” Mr. Karney said.
Cultured oyster fisheries in Chilmark and Edgartown are doing very well.
Mr. Karney said the bad economy is furthering the mission of making sure that the Island’s commercial shellfishermen have product. “The late Lenny Jason used to tell me he lived through the depression. He used to say to me, when times get hard there was shellfishing. This is what Islanders fall back on.”