Nantucket’s commercial scalloping season came to an end Thursday, and the island’s fleet landed only 3,200 bushels over the five-month season, one of the lowest totals on record.
That compares to 7,600 bushels taken during the 2020-21 season, and is well off the total of 13,000 bushels that were landed as recently as 2017-18.
This season was characterized by dismal conditions - with diminished eel grass and few scallops to be had - but also high prices paid to fishermen and by consumers at island fish markets and beyond.
By the end of the season, there were only about six or eight boats continuing to fish in Nantucket Harbor and in Madaket. Bruce Beebe was among them.
“It was one of the better seasons, financially, for those of us who kept going,” Beebe said. “That’s due in part to the fact that most people did get discouraged early and dropped out. That leaves a lot of real estate for the six or eight of us who plugged along. There were a handful of areas that were very productive, but the biggest problem is we’ve lost so much good habitat. The whole south side of the harbor, other than Shimmo, is just barren. It’s not that there’s not scallops. There’s nothing there. It’s just sand. The eel grass is gone.”
Those conditions meant Beebe, who occasionally fished this year with his teenage son Max, was out on the water longer than usual to get his limit. Beebe, 59, has been scalloping since 1986 and said he was dismayed to see the scallop habitat in the harbor continue to deteriorate.
“I love this fishery,” Beebe said. “This is one of the things that attracted me to live out here. I would hate to see it go away. There used to be scallops all up the east coast. Now we're the only place that has a viable commercial fishery. But it doesn't look good and it's the water quality.”
There is some cautious optimism, however, for next year based on what scallopers were seeing out in the harbor and off Madaket.
“It looks better for next year,” said Bob DeCosta, who scalloped for the first two months of the season before calling it around the first of the year. “There’s seed in Madaket and in the harbor. But there’s not a lot of grass. We’ve got to do something about that.”
At the outset of the season, DeCosta decried the conditions he was seeing in the harbor and said the fishery would be lucky to land more than 2,000 bushels.
“They might have done a little better than I anticipated,” he said. “The guys who fished all winter did fine because the price was good. Hopefully we can keep these higher prices. With the cost of everything these days, it doesn’t make sense to go scalloping at $10 per pound. This year it proved people don’t mind paying these higher prices for bay scallops.”
At the start of the season, fishermen were getting paid $22 per pound for their catch, while island fish markets set the retail price around $35 per pound, both up significantly from 2020. Those prices stayed consistently high for the season.
Samantha Denette, the executive director of the Nantucket Shellfish Association, said the plummeting bushel count is yet another reason to support legislation that would protect water quality and harbor health.
"Unfortunately we experienced a really low year for scallops," Denette said. "We feel this is indicative of decreasing habitat quality in the harbor - the eelgrass is sparse and weak and the water is overloaded with nutrients. One major contributor is fertilizer runoff. The (town's Brant Point) Hatchery does an amazing job stocking the harbor with scallop larvae, but to what end of it doesn’t have a habitat to thrive in?"