Nantucket's Commercial Scalloping Catch Tops 8,700 Bushels

Jason Graziadei •

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Scalloper Bruce Cowan brought in his 5-bushel limit at Old South Wharf in the rain on Thursday. Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

Nantucket's commercial scalloping season comes to an end today, and the harvest by island fishermen will top 8,000 bushels for the first time since the 2019-20 season.

Scallopers, along with officials from the Nantucket Shellfish Association and the town's Natural Resources Department, all said they were pleased to see the final number come in at 8,709 bushels, a 18.8 percent increase over last season's total of 7,329 bushels. 

There were other positive takeaways from the season - a mild winter allowed the fleet to get out on the water nearly every day the fishery was open. Scallops were plentiful, and there was a huge amount of seed (juvenile scallops) in the harbors, a hopeful sign for the years ahead.

But the season was also a mixed bag. The yield, or weight, of the island's bay scallops was down from last year, and the price per pound paid to scallopers finished at $20. Only 85 people bought commercial scalloping licenses for the 2023-24 season, an all-time low. By the last week of the season, just about a dozen boats were still out scalloping, and fishermen said that when the season ends Friday there will still be plenty of viable adult scallops out in the harbors that were not caught.

Bruce Cowan was among the few scallopers still fishing on Thursday, and he returned to Old South Wharf with his five-bushel limit and a smile on his face just before noon. Even with heavy rain and wind gusts expected to top 40 mph today, he said he was still thinking about getting out there for the final day of the season.

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Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

The bushel total, however, has not topped 10,000 since the 2017-18 season, and remains a far cry from the heyday of the Nantucket scallop fishery in the early 1980s, when more than 300 people purchased commercial licenses and the harvest topped 100,000 bushels.

Tara Riley, the town's shellfish and aquatic resources manager, said the total - along with the boom of seed scallops - was a pleasant surprise and promising for the years to come.

"The 8,000 number that came in was more than anticipated - I was pleasantly surprised," Riley said. "It's been an interesting year and we've been preoccupied with all this seed. This year coming up could be surprising if that seed survives. It’s great to see all the scallops and scallop seed, so we're trying to double down on focusing on the habitat and eelgrass."

Riley said the town's Natural Resources Department moved more than 14 million scallops in an effort to improve their chances of survival into the next season. If they all survive she said, it would be enough to support 67 scallopers fishing every day of the season and getting their limit.

"It depends on what happens - if next year comes and the seed survives and there are more scallops, is that enough to get more people involved and going on a regular basis? I'm not sure," Riley said. 

She also noted what some of the scallopers remarked on - that there were still scallops in the harbor left uncaught. 

"We measure by what comes in, and I don’t think that’s representative of what’s out there," she added.

Samantha Denette, the executive director of the Nantucket Shellfish Association, said the conditions this season - with plenty of scallops and fewer fishermen out on the water - led to some consideration of increasing the daily bushel limit. The measure had support among the fleet and was discussed at the Harbor & Shellfish Advisory Board, but was ultimately not adopted. 

"The 8,000 bushels - I'm glad to see a number that high," Denette said. "It tells me we have a healthy scallop population in the harbor and tells me all the work that the Nantucket Shellfish Association, the Natural Resources Department, and the Nantucket Land & Water Council, all of these groups, the work and awareness of harbor health is working. It’s not perfect and we still have a lot of work to do, but progress has been made."

At the town's Brant Point Shellfish Hatchery, where staff from the Natural Resources Department conduct controlled spawns and larval releases of Nantucket bay scallops, the goal for several years now has been "to increase the density of scallops in certain areas to help maximize breeding success of the native populations." During the most recent season, the hatchery has produced 85 million larvae.

Riley said that her department had been approached by representatives from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program who are interested in conducting an assessment of Nantucket's bay scallop fishery and providing a seafood rating based on environmental sustainability. The effort has led the town's staff to do "deep dives into our fishery and data" and additional surveys of the harbor to monitor the scallop population.

"That will give us an indication of how the density changed if there was over-winter mortality and a look at the habitat," Riley said. "It will give us interesting information going into the summer and when we survey again in the fall."

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Copy of White Green Modern Bar Chart Graph
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