Why Are Island Scallopers Struggling To Sell Their Catch On Nantucket?

Jason Graziadei •

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It’s the peak of Nantucket’s commercial scalloping season, but one of the island’s long-running scallopers - Bob DeCosta - isn’t on the water. And he’s not the only local fisherman whose dredges are dry these days.

“I’m not fishing because I have no place to sell them,” DeCosta said. “This is a new thing. It’s unfortunate because there’s still plenty of scallops out there to be caught.”

Despite what fishermen have described as one of the best seasons in recent memory, DeCosta and some other island scallopers are struggling to sell their catch on Nantucket. There were already limited options on the island, and with the recent closure of Glidden’s Seafood for several months, a number of fishermen in the island’s fleet have been unable to find buyers for their scallops.

“It’s the first time I've ever seen on Nantucket that you can’t get rid of the scallops,” said Steve Lawrence, who’s been scalloping on the island for 45 years. While he’s maintained his relationship with one of the few markets still actively buying scallops - Sayle’s Seafood - Lawrence said he’s aware of the problems that others are having. “I was shocked. I’ve never seen anything like that. A lot of guys have said the buyers just can’t get rid of the scallops.”

As for the root cause of the issue - like other problems facing Nantucket’s scallop industry - the answer depends on who you ask. The situation is driven by a dynamic fishery with a limited distribution network, according to the Nantucket Shellfish Association. But it also seems to be about personalities and relationships - especially the loyalties and grudges - between the island’s fishermen and the fishmongers.

“It’s the fact that these fishmongers here are just lazy, that’s all there is to it,” said scalloper Dan Pronk. “They don’t want to put the legwork in to establish markets. I’ve never had a buyer on the island tell me they’re not going to buy them in my 20 years of scalloping until this year. I said to him ‘what’s the price going to be?’ He said ‘just so you know, we’re not taking on anyone new’.”

Pronk added that earlier in the season, he was simply giving out pounds of bay scallops to anyone he knew as Christmas presents due to the difficulty he was having finding a buyer.

Another island scalloper who spoke to the Current this week but asked to remain anonymous said he wasn’t fishing, but was rather scouting locations off-island “looking for markets.”

At Sayle’s Seafood on Washington Street, the retail market has been closed for most of January but owner Charlie Sayle has continued to buy scallops from some of the island’s fleet. He too remarked that the season so far seems to indicate a scallop fishery on the rebound from one of the lowest harvests on record in 2021-22.

“The volume is good - it hasn’t been this good for awhile,” Sayle said. “But Glidden’s is closed down for three months. He had half a dozen fishermen, and those guys have been scrambling around. I took on a few of them, but it’s also the worst week of the year with the holidays over, and some people taking a break. But this is unusual. With the Glidden’s thing, I took some on, but then I said I can’t take them on anymore. It’s really about if they’re loyal to you and don’t bounce around.”

Sayle also remarked on some of the other factors in play that have affected the market for scallops off-island - and dropped the price being paid to island fishermen from $22 to $13 per pound.

“What’s happened is the Vineyard has dumped a bunch of scallops on the market and tanked the price,” Sayle said. “There are more scallops everywhere this year. They were selling them to Boston for $20.”

And yet, fishermen are seeing their scallops being sold in far-flung markets such as Ann Arbor, Michigan for as much as $99.95 per pound.

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Glidden’s Seafood owner Jeff Henderson did not return a message seeking comment about the market’s current closure. But DeCosta said he expected Glidden’s would be closed until April with the owners on vacation.

“They don’t have anyone to run the market while they’re gone, and they can’t get help,” DeCosta said. “So they stopped buying because they’re shut down. The other buyers aren’t buying from us because we didn’t start with them from the beginning. There’s eight to 10 of us who sold to Glidden’s, and we have no place to sell our scallops now. I sold to Charlie (Sayle) for a week, but he called me and told me he didn’t have an outlet to sell the scallops. He said he couldn’t find anywhere to sell them and had put enough in the freezer. A couple guys have found markets off-island and are shipping scallops. But I’d rather just sell them. I could probably go bang on doors and go to restaurants, but that’s illegal. You have to have a wholesale license.”

At the Nantucket Shellfish Association, executive director Samantha Denette and co-president Bruce Beni have been watching the situation warily, and speaking with the scallopers who have been affected. Beni called it “an unprecedented situation.”

The issue is complex, Denette emphasized, but improving the market for Nantucket’s bay scallops is one of the non-profits priorities.

“Nantucket bay scallops are an in-demand product but there is a gap in servicing that demand,” Denette told the Current. “It's a dynamic fishery - that is currently at risk - and we have a limited distribution network to support it. Nantucket holds a special place in people's hearts and its residents maintain that connection year round, whether on-island or off. There may not be an easy roadmap to address the gap between our valued bay scallops and people's ability to access them, but supporting our local fishermen and the legacy of the Nantucket bay scallop is at stake. The work of the NSA is to preserve our fishery, both its legacy and for generations to come. I'm optimistic that through this current scalloping season of hardship, there is an opportunity for positive change and through our Community Infrastructure Grant, the Nantucket Shellfish Association is ready to support such projects.”

For most of January, even finding bay scallops to buy on the retail side on Nantucket has been difficult. In addition to Glidden’s Seafood, most of the other island seafood markets have been closed - including Sayle’s, Nantucket Seafoods, 167 Raw, and Souza’s Seafood (although Souza’s recently reopened). However, some scallops have been available at the Nantucket Meat and Fish Market on Amelia Drive, and the sign on the door at Nantucket Seafoods said “come around the back” or call for scallops.

While Sayle’s and Nantucket Seafoods owner Ted Jennison have continued to buy scallops from island fishermen, it seems the absence of Glidden’s has had the biggest impact. Souza’s Seafood is open, but it is generally selling scallops caught by the Souza family.

For some island scallopers, the situation has prompted them to stop fishing, or to improvise.

“You’ve got to get creative,” Pronk said. “Shipping them is a lot of legwork. I started making phone calls to markets I used to work with. I got doors slammed in my face, but you find markets. This is one of the best scallop seasons we’ve had in a long time, so some guys are talking about freezing them themselves. Something’s got to change.”

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