How it Works: Scalloping

I once asked a friend who has lived on the Vineyard since the seventies what he thought the biggest difference was between now and then. He paused a bit and finally said, “Well, back in those days, we all scalloped.”

Judging by the numbers, a lot of Vineyarders still do, and Martha’s Vineyard is one of the largest producers of wild bay scallops in the world.

Bay scallopers generally fall into two categories: dip netters and those who drag nets from a boat. There is also some scalloping done by scuba divers, although that can lead to complications, as diver Colin Whyte of West Tisbury recalls: “Back in the seventies, we’d dive for scallops in the Lagoon and were having quite a bit of success – the only problem was that some of the old timers would see our bubbles on the surface and drag their nets over us.”

Dip netting is the simplest way to start scalloping. You just need a pair of waders, a dip net, a peep sight, and a bag or floating basket to hold your catch. A dip net is an elongated net with about an eight-inch opening attached to a six-foot pole. Unlike clams and quahaugs, scallops sit on the bottom and you just have to scoop them up. But you’ll need the peep sight to see them.

A peep sight is a box with a glass bottom that allows you to see into the water. They’re often constructed of wood but many people build their own using a five-gallon plastic bucket: Cut out the bottom and replace it with a piece of glass or plexiglass, and caulk it so it’s watertight.

A scalloping boat can be any small open craft that has been outfitted with a set of outriggers for two nets, a motor to haul them, and a culling board – essentially a table that extends across the center of the boat. The nets are constructed with netting on the top and chain on the bottom.

Lynne Fraker, a commercial scalloper from Vineyard Haven, describes the dragging process: “You begin by lowering a net on each side of the boat and then tow them along the bottom. When you’re through with your tow, you start the hauler motor, which pulls in the nets. Then you dump out the contents of the haul onto the culling table and set the nets for another tow. While you’re making the tow, you sort out the haul on the culling board, separating the keepers from everything else that gets dragged up. It’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The size of the scallop is not an indication of maturity. The mature scallops, or keepers, can be distinguished from the immature scallops, or seeds, by a little ridge called a growth ring that extends laterally across the shell. The ring is generally visible or you can detect it by running your fingers down the shell and feeling the nub.

Regulations vary by town, but in most cases, recreational scallopers are allowed one half a bushel of scallops a week, while commercial scallopers can take three bushels a day. The bushel must be a struck bushel; in other words it has to be level, not heaped – the shellfish warden has to be able to run a stick across the top.

Once you get your scallops, you then have to deal with opening them, a task that can take a considerable amount of time. Some commercial scallopers will do this themselves, and others will bring them to “cutters,” who will open them.

But first things first, it all begins by getting a license from the town where you’re going to be doing your scalloping. The opening day of the season varies slightly from town to town, but the recreational season generally begins in October and the commercial season begins a few days or weeks later and extends until February or March, depending upon the availability of the scallops.

Lynne points out that the best scalloping is generally early in the season before the beds get too picked over, and by all means, don’t miss opening day: “Everybody’s out there, it’s a party, it’s a real celebration – you don’t ever want to miss opening day!”