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Where Have All the Scallops Gone?

Martha's Vineyard Times December 24, 1998


“We used to catch more in a week than we do in a whole season.”

Rob Coad, a 23-year veteran of the Edgartown scallop fishery, says that he used to sell 100 pounds of scallops each day. Now he averages only 20 to 25 pounds. Where opening day of the scallop season in the 1980s in Cape Poge Bay saw 100 or more boats dragging for the succulent bivalve, this year Rob was joined by about 20 other fishermen. As the season wears on, he sees just a handful of others, mostly veterans of the fishery, persevering.

While Lagoon Pond, shared by Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, has experienced a huge comeback in its scallop population in recent years, Edgartown and much of the rest of the state is experiencing a decline. Relatively pristine, Cape Poge Bay had been the most productive area, yielding more than 11,000 bushels of scallops in 1992. However, this mainstay of Edgartown’s scallop industry has been in decline ever since, reaching an all-time low of 362 bushels in 1996, according to Paul Bagnall, Edgartown shellfish constable.

Last week, Mr. Bagnall and Rick Karney of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group attended a meeting of the Massachusetts Shellfish Officer's Association. The meeting focused almost exclusively on bay scallops, which are in decline throughout the state.

Prices Soar
The news isn't all bad for Rob Coad and his colleagues. “It’s been hard, but the price is so high you don't have to catch your limit to make enough money,” he says.

With scallops scarce, the price has skyrocketed. Island scallopers are getting $15 a pound, and those willing to travel off-Island get two to three dollars more per pound. At the Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven, local bay scallops retail for $17.95 per pound.

Why is the price so high?” says Betsy Larsen of the Net Result, “Because we’re the only ones who have them. They don’t have them on Cape Cod. They don’t have them on Nantucket.” The price for the scallops definitely raises customers’ eyebrows, but Betsy Larsen says that they are still buying.

“You know how it is when something is in season. You’ll pay almost anything. To me, they’re like candy.”

What’s Ahead?
What has caused this precipitous decline in the Cape Poge bay scallop population?

“Well, there’s no smoking gun,” says Rick Karney of the shellfish group. The private nonprofit operates a shellfish hatchery on Lagoon Pond and a nursery on Chappaquiddick, providing member towns with young shellfish with which to seed their ponds and bays. “If we knew exactly, it would be great, but it’s not one single problem."

Given the obstacles a scallop must overcome in order to grow and reproduce (let alone wind up on your holiday menu), it is amazing that they manage at all.
A tiny scallop larva (called a veliger) is swept about by the whims of the tides and currents for one to three weeks and is lucky if it gets the opportunity to settle down in an appropriate habitat--an eelgrass bed, for instance. For a variety of reasons, some little understood, eelgrass beds are in decline.

Once a veliger has settled, it faces a parade of predators: fish, birds, crabs, snails. Suspected chief among these is the green crab. An exotic species which has inhabited the Island for only 100 years, the green crab is a voracious predator that can live in a wide variety of habitats. Scallops are believed to hide from predators among the dark, waving fronds of eelgrass.

Once grown, a scallop must have just the right conditions to reproduce. This requires a rise in temperature which is enough to induce spawning, but not so high as to harm the animal. Scallops reproduce by releasing their eggs and sperm into the water in the hope that chance match-ups will occur. So, the density of scallops is also a factor.

In addition, the life cycle of a bay scallop is relatively short, about two years, compared to more than 30 years for quahaugs. This means that if a bay or pond does not have the right conditions for reproduction for more than two years, the population can be wiped out. In years past, a bay that had a bad year may have been able to count on “recruitment,” veligers spawned in other ponds or bays settling locally. However, with the general decline in bay scallop populations, reseeding must often be done artificially.

Rick Karney says that each of these stages can present a "bottleneck" in scallop reproduction, and the situation in Cape Poge Bay probably involves an interaction among some or all of these factors.

What Is to Be Done?
Monday night, the Edgartown shellfish committee endorsed a proposal to study the factors affecting scallop populations in Cape Poge Bay. They will present the proposal as a budget article for the next fiscal year.

The study would cost $36,000 for the first year, $18,500 for the second year, and $16,000 for the third year, totaling $70,500 for the three-year study. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has committed to help with eelgrass studies, and Paul Bagnall believes that if the town commits to doing the study, additional help or funds could be leveraged from other sources.

The proposal, developed by an ad hoc group including Paul Bagnall, Rick Karney, and several Chappaquiddick residents, includes hiring a professional facilitator to oversee the project. The three-year study would focus on water quality and circulation patterns within the bay. The study would also focus on eelgrass beds, and attempt to measure any impact from the use of scallop drags.

The goal of the study is to fill in the gaps of understanding about Cape Poge Bay and its scallop population, provide baseline data for measuring changes, and inform future management decisions. The budget hearing for the shellfish articles will be held on Jan. 7.

In the meantime, Paul Bagnall has some strategies already in place to bring the bay scallops back to Cape Poge Bay. A healthy set of seed scallops has been found just outside the bay, and the town is paying fishermen to drag them up and release them into the bay. This year, thousands of settling scallop spat were collected on “spat bags” in Katama Bay and released into Cape Poge Bay.

Several spawning cages were set up in Cape Poge Bay this year; these cages hold dense groups of scallops in shallow water where warmer temperatures induce spawning. These appear to have been effective in Lagoon Pond, but genetic studies are needed to confirm this. Also, about 15 acres of the bay have been closed to scalloping since the second day of the season.

In addition, the town offers a bounty on green crabs, and in some ponds, traps them. Mr. Bagnall plans to increase the number of crab traps next year.

Scratching Out a Living
Rob Coad uses his 23-foot boat to eke out a living from the waters around Edgartown.

“You have to be versatile to make it now,” he explains. In addition to scallops, he fishes for fluke, bass, and scup. “Every year in the last 10 years, I’ve had to jump into something else.”

He says he'll keep scalloping for as long as they let him. “It’s hard to quit what you love,” he says. Does he love it?

“You can’t do it if you don’t.”

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