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Photo Essay: Family Scalloping


Click here to view John Stanton's 30-minute documentary, "The Last Bay Scallop?"

There’s a quiet hiss in the atmosphere of October. It’s not in the scurry of the wind that rustles drying leaves in the maples and bayberry bushes, it’s a barely audible sigh that drifts amid the goldenrod and sweetfern, mingling with dewy air that yellows in the slanting sunlight of these shortening days.  For many of us, as the huckleberry in the moors starts its annual fall change into crimson robes, we think of our own change of mood as we turn our heads towards the harbor. It is now, finally, scallop season.            

But it’s not quite yet the get-a-scallop-roll at the Downy Flake season. That’s not until November, when the retail season starts. This is Family Scallop Season, when folks can get a one-month jump on the commercial fleet, and wade or dive for treasure before the harbor waters plunge into winter frozenness.

On this year’s opening day, October 1, there was none of that soft humming in the air. The sky was full of the leftover business of Hurricane Ian, which had just finished tearing a hellish swath across Florida with an encore over the Carolinas. Bands of rain swept across Madaket Harbor, drenching most everyone who ventured into the shallows wearing waders and bumping push-rakes along the bottom.           

Scanning the shoreline from Jackson’s Point over to Little Neck and then back over towards Smith’s Point, I counted 80 people on the water. Such it is on opening day, shine or rain.

It wasn’t a bad day after all. Some people got their legal limit (Ahem: only one bushel per week, please) or close to it, and others found just enough…or close to it. There were all walks of scallopers, from the seasoned grumpy push-rakers with patched-up gear and furrowed brow, right down to the houseguests who had just bought everything new the day before: bright and shiny rakes, out-of-the-box long-sleeve gloves and unblemished squeaky waders. A few first-timers looked even a bit terrified by this whole new adventure.

I prefer snorkeling for my scallops. I’m rather clumsy in waders, and almost always wander out a little too far where a rogue wavelet comes in over the transom. But with a neoprene wetsuit, mask and dip-net you get wet in the first place, and with your head under water there is just so much to see. Shafts of yellow October sunlight, waving eelgrass, darting baitfish, a flounder or two; horseshoe crabs, spider crabs and blue-claws. Oh, and I forgot to mention: Blue-eyed scallops. See that scallop? Pick it up!      But for all this grandeur, things are not well underwater these days. Aside from the plentiful hordes of green crabs (invaders from another planet that are hard on shellfish and the eelgrass beds) our harbors are suffering from ourselves.

It’s very well established that our septic systems and everyday runoff, which includes fertilizers, are overfeeding the algae in the harbors, clouding the water. This turbidity blocks the sunlight that the eelgrass needs to survive. It’s no exaggeration to assert that eelgrass is the harbor’s foundational nursery, and that Nantucket has seen a steady decline in its beds for, well, decades. To put it in the curt language of one local bumper sticker: “No Eelgrass, No Scallops.”

Importantly advantageous steps are being taken, however. The Town has run sewer lines to harbor watersheds in Monomoy and Shimmo, voters at Town Meeting have approved two measures to curtail the overuse of fertilizers, and plans to reinvigorate storm-water reduction are in the works. In addition, there’s the long-running work of the town’s Natural Resources Department, the Brant Point Shellfish Hatchery, and the research and advocacy of the Maria Mitchell Association and the Nantucket Land Council, to name a few. This past summer it was announced that the 2009 Nantucket & Madaket Harbors Action Plan will be updated next year. These are all very good things.

It was just about 40 years ago that I got my first immersion with family shellfishing in Polpis Harbor. I’ll call it “baptism by scallops.” The old-timers sent me off in waders and showed me how to view my quarry through a glass-bottomed viewing box.

That was when I first discovered Argopecten irradians in its own backyard. That was also when I was “attacked” by a large monkfish, stepped into a hole, and then filled my waders with most of the water in the harbor. Since then I’ve seen the invasive and fouling Codium seaweed come and go, I’ve seen the quahogs come and go (and come back again,) and I’ve seen the eelgrass just go. These days the bottom is mostly bare and scallopless.

There are still littlenecks in there, but I’m not saying where. These observations are mentioned with the thought that all of us who take to the water are witnesses to the changes, both good and bad, and that the information may be useful to the people who are helping to get our waters back into better health.

A few weeks ago, while poking around the West End for some insights for this story, I put down my camera gear for an hour or so and jumped in the water at a friend’s secret spot in Madaket Harbor. I hadn’t been feeling very positive about the state of a changing Nantucket (or the world, for that matter) but at first sight below the surface, in the waving eelgrass, were this season’s first scallops. They seemed to be everywhere, and the excitement and the wonder and the appreciation of many things fortunate all came rushing back.

Later that afternoon, when the sun had made a brief appearance (two days later I was nearly struck by a thunderbolt in Sconset) I stood on a little hill that overlooked Hither Creek. Across Jackson Point were the low dunes way over on Eel Point, popping out at the horizon.

To the west was Millie’s Bridge. To the east lay the way to the Madaket Ditch and the blue crabs of Long Pond. On this rise were the modest older houses and their browning scruffy lawns reaching down to the upper saltmarsh at the water’s edge of this place, the Old Madaket. It was then that I heard again the warm and soothing hiss of the October air, full of mystery and something ancient, redolent with life and anticipation.

Needless to say, those scallops tasted sweeter than ever that night.

Rob Benchley is a Nantucket photographer and writer, and a Sconset washashore. With Jim Patrick, he co-authored “Scallop Season, a Nantucket Chronicle,” noted as “a season with one of America’s last great bay scalloping fleets.” The book celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Rob is currently the Sconset Trust’s keeper of the Sankaty Head Lighthouse.


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