A father-daughter story and a look into the last remaining bay scallop fishery in the world

Bay Scallops

by Sofi Thanhauser

Bay Scallops

Elizabeth Cecil

It was the last week of October when I began to hear the murmurings. At the restaurant where I work, one of the waitresses announced smugly that her wife had just bought some—that they would be “waiting in the fridge” when she got home. In the restaurant kitchen I overheard another of the waitresses ask the cook when he would put them on the menu. That afternoon, a friend called to ask if I had any waders, so we could go out into the pond and get some.

It was as if a collective craving had suddenly seized us all, like a pulsing node in the back of the brain. The same three syllables kept dropping out of everybody’s lips: bay scallops.

On Martha’s Vineyard, we are spoiled. After one has grown used to our small, sweet, rich bay scallops, sea scallops seem bland, flavorless, and ersatz.

In the biological sciences, there is a theory that connects diversity of species with the point of origin for that species. Kazakhstan, for example, is believed to be the birthplace of the apple, and scientists go there to study apple genetics in entire forests of apple trees. Martha’s Vineyard is the Kazakhstan of bay scallops.

“I had come from Virginia, and I had never seen so much variety in scallops,” recalls Rick Karney, shellfish biologist and Director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.

“Diversity like this would lead you to believe that this was one of the epicenters of the species.”

We hardly need another reason to be passionate about our bay scallops, but unfortunately there is one more. Aside from Nantucket and, recently, Long Island Sound, the Vineyard’s is the last remaining commercial bay scallop fishery in the world.

In the mid 1980s, a still unidentified cause wiped out the population of bay scallops on the Cape and South Coast, and severely depleted populations on the Vineyard. While the population has never returned to its level in the 1960s and 1970s, it is at least “stable” today, according to Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden.

The species is farmed commercially in China, a practice which labor costs make prohibitively expensive in the U.S. But as for the bay scallop’s life in the wild, the embayment systems of Martha’s Vineyard offer one of the last remaining preserves.

On the Water

Motoring out into Cape Pogue, John Conlon smokes no-handed. He has one hand on the tiller and another on a rope attached to the side of the boat, to keep his balance. It is a cold, bright morning in early December, and he squints into the sun while the wake splays out in diagonal rays behind him.

John’s daughter Brigit sits facing him, her back to the culling board. She wears a brown wool scarf wrapped up around her ears, and with her long hair fanning out beneath it she looks like a figure from an art deco illustration. A few weeks ago, she and her friend Alexei became the first two-woman team to fill their quota in 30 years. Today, she is her father’s first mate. There is another scallop boat already on the water, and John motors over to hail it.

“This is the highliner of the whole fleet,” says John. We pull up near the boat and John calls over. “I just wanted you to know that I’m not trying to ruin your day,” he shouts. “We’ll be on the other side of the hole, anyways. These are some IRS photographers,” he adds, gesturing at photographer Elizabeth Cecil and me, perched atop the culling board.

When we near the ground John wants to drag over, he hands the tiller to Brigit so that he can light a cigarette. “See the green bush at the end of the beach there— just to the right of the church tower?” he asks. Her eyes rake over the spit of land but don’t seem to latch on to anything.

“Sure,” she says.

“When it disappears, you could just put her in neutral and hang out.”

John knows there is a “big nasty mud hole” in this region, and he wants to pull his drags around it without going in. He uses reference points on either side of the cape, like the tip of an osprey nest and a lighthouse roof, for example, or this particular green bush, to triangulate for location. He takes the tiller back from Brigit and motors slowly along, keeping his eyes on the shore, waiting for a particular bush to show. Suddenly, he springs into action, tossing each of the nine drags overboard athletically, mechanically, like a piston firing.

All nine ropes stretch taut into the water and the boat slows to a crawl. The motor is laboring just as hard, but we are scarcely moving, we are dragging. John lights a cigarette.

This is the first “pull” of the morning, and the sense of anticipation is palpable. As he brings the boat around to the left, John explains how the drags fan out when the boat turns, “if they’re set properly.” As if to relieve the tension he adds, “We have one other spot we can try, if this doesn’t work out.”

Unlike other scallopers, who use motorized towlines, John pulls his drags up by hand. He lifts the first one out of the water, its chain clanking and laden with seaweed and shell, and dumps the contents onto the culling board. It looks promising.

Brigit sets to work immediately, pulling the large clumps of seaweed off the top and throwing them overboard to clear space to work in. By this point I have jumped down into the boat to help her, and together we sort through the wet heap of animate and inanimate matter that crowds the board. Seaweed, crabs, conch, empty shell, rocks encrusted with sweetmeats, and juvenile scallops all must be tossed back into the sea, leaving only the adult scallops to pile up in the bushel basket.

Culling should happen fast, John explains, especially when there are other boats nearby who might tow over promising territory while you spend precious time bent over the board.

Scallops are limited in number, and the fishery has some semblance of an adult Easter-egg hunt. Turf wars are not uncommon. Nor are elaborate feints to keep your competitors guessing. Holding up clumps of seaweed in feigned despair to telegraph the fact that your drags are coming up empty, when in fact you’ve struck gold, or pretending to cull like mad when in fact you’ve got nothing.

Brigit’s studied eye can instantly tell the juveniles from the adults, but I have to ask her over and over on the ones I’m not sure about. “Baby?” I ask.

“Big baby,” she confirms.

“Big baby?”

“No, it’s an adult, but it’s too small.”

Scallops live for two years at most, so anything that has overwintered once is fair game. The scallop forms concentric rings around the perimeter of its shell as it grows, and because it grows more slowly in the winter the rings crowd together to form a visible band that is used to differentiate the adults from the juveniles.

There are also differences in coloring: “See, this one just looks more innocent,” Brigit keeps saying. At first I think this sounds ridiculously poetic and vague, but after about an hour standing over the culling board, I start to see what she means.

Since today is more of an educational trip, and we’re not even going for the limit— six bushels, three for each of the commercial scallopers on board—we head for shore after three tows, culling all the way in, and arrive with two full bushels.

When the boat pulls in alongside the dock in the Edgartown Harbor, Brigit loads the bushels of scallops into her truck. John sloshes water over the culling board with a sawed off orange juice container, stacks his drags up neatly, and slides them under the culling board.

Each one of John’s drags is his own handiwork. They are beautiful, architectural, composed of a heavy metal v-shape, a large chain that drags along the bottom, and a pocket made of netted metal rings. The rope is recycled main line from the tub trawlers he once used to fish cod, up until the 1990s. John blames the government for allowing gillnetters to destroy the cod fishery. Today, scalloping is one of few commercial fisheries left to him.

In the Lab

Upstairs in the Shellfish Hatchery, slender little Amandine Surier Hall is dwarfed by three gigantic plastic tubes. In the summer they will be filled with bubbling green and brown liquid; now they are white and silent, and they look like fixtures on a spaceship.

In a small room downstairs, Amandine shows me her algae growth lab, full of small flasks full of brown and green liquids. “All of these different flasks are different species,” she explains. “They all bring something different to the table. Just like us, it’s better to have a mixed diet.” About a month before the first shellfish spawn in the spring, Amandine will start to grow out her algae cultures until they fill the massive tubes upstairs. As the manager of the Shellfish Hatchery, she has a lot of mouths to feed.

Each July, Amandine oversees the creation of millions of scallop embryos in a handful of meatloaf pans semi-submerged in the warm water of a large sink. Scallops are more particular than other shellfish species in their spawning habits; Amandine calls them “the princesses of shellfish.”

The hatchery usually times its scallop spawn to correspond with the one taking place in the wild. There is evidence that the scallop responds to the length of days, and won’t respond to mere temperature manipulation. When the scallops are “ripe,” they are placed in the pans, and the temperature is raised until they begin to release sperm.

Scallops are functional hermaphrodites, which means they release sperm and egg in alternating bursts. Amandine and her summer interns collect the sperm and egg in buckets and filter them through a fine sieve. Then, she adds a tiny amount of sperm to the bucket containing the eggs. Unlike human eggs, which wall themselves off from sperm once the first one gets in, scallop eggs lack a defense against “polyspermy” which results in deformity and mortality in the offspring. In the wild the egg and sperm are so diluted that it isn’t an issue, but in the lab Amandine keeps careful count of the sperm around each egg.

A single spawn produces millions of embryos, which are placed in three giant barrels in the top floor of the hatchery. For three weeks, they swim, “little figure eights with cilia,” as Amandine puts it, until it is time for them to undergo metamorphosis.

Just before they “set,” the word used in the hatchery to describe the moment when the larvae becomes a tiny, shelled scallop, Amandine moves them downstairs onto flat trays, where they will be constantly fed and washed in filtered water until it is time to send them out into the ponds and bays.

Fed a nutritious diet, and safe from predators, these baby scallops are given “optimal conditions” in which to grow. But even with the tremendous care she takes, Amandine says, there are some things she cannot control.

Twice in the last five years, algal blooms have made the water in Lagoon Pond toxic, wiping out every living thing in the hatchery. The hatchery pumps its water directly from the pond, so any degradation in the water quality affects it immediately.

Amandine walks out of the hatchery and onto the dock that pokes out over Lagoon Pond. She points out a freshwater stream running under the hill and trickling into the Pond. “See how green it all is,” she says, gesturing to the shiny wet path of the water, which paints an emerald green stripe down the bank. “It is full of nitrogen from septic systems, nitrogen from fertilizer.” Green in this case is not good at all.

Pissing in the Pond

Algal blooms occur when one species becomes dominant, and obtains a certain density of cells per milliliter of water. They are dramatic events. But even when a bloom is not occurring, the level of nitrogen in Lagoon pond, seeping in from the sewage and fertilizer in the watershed, is causing a grave problem.

Nitrogen makes plants grow faster— this is why it is used as fertilizer—and the high levels of nitrogen in the pond cause the algae to become so dense they block the sunlight from reaching to bottom. The eelgrass on the bottom, left in the dark, dies. In Lagoon Pond, eelgrass can now grow only in shallow water, where the sun doesn’t have to penetrate very far.

In Sengekontacket Pond, the loss is even more substantial. The eel grass used to be so thick there, says David Grunden, the Oak Bluffs Shellfish Constable, “There were areas where you couldn’t fire a propeller, because it would foul the motor.” But now Sengekontacket has an open bottom (sand and rocks), and its scallops, once plentiful, have all but disappeared.

Young scallops depend on eelgrass for habitat, and they are far from alone. “Eel grass meadows are some of the most productive habitat in the world,” says David. “They provide an area of refuge for a lot of different animals, especially in their juvenile stages, and for small adult bait fishes.” Animals further up the food chain are affected by this loss of habitat too; larger fish and birds depend on eelgrass meadows as areas of forage.

In early December of 2011, the Massachusetts Estuaries Project released the results of its study of Lagoon pond, designating the pond “significantly impaired.” The study found that over the last 20 years, the Vineyard has lost an estimated one half of its eelgrass. Globally, the loss stands at the even more alarming, two thirds.

David compares the situation to the 1960s and early ’70s, when excess levels of phosphates dumping into rivers led to the same kind of algal overgrowth. “Now we’re seeing the same excess nutrients coming into waters, this time it’s nitrogen in coastal embayment systems.” The Clean Water Act, signed in 1972, set limits to the amount of phosphates that could end up in river systems. A solution to the new dilemma will have to be sought in changing the way we deal with our sewage.

Amandine and Rick are happy that people have begun to catch on that shellfish help to clean the water, but they say that this enthusiasm also goes along with a misconception that shellfish can solve the problem of nitrogen loading.

“We can make scallops till we’re blue in the face,” says Rick, but it won’t do any good “if we don’t have clean water to put them in.”