Who were these mysterious people, who live on this tiny, isolated island, twenty-six miles beyond the farthest reach of the continent, whose small boats dot the harbor on bone chilling winter days, who return wet and cold and triumphant, boxes overflowing with scallops, who then vanish into a landscape of shingles and pine trees and meandering dirt roads as though dream figures?
Author Jim Patrick and photographer Rob Benchley set out to answer this question by following Nantuckets scalloping community through one typical season, 1999-2000. They went with scallopers on their boats, met them at the docks, talked with them at their homes or workplaces, or at their favorite breakfast or lunch spots. They visited shuckers who open the scallops, buyers at the fish markets, wardens who try to catch scallopers doing something wrong, and town officials responsible for regulating and maintaining the fishery and the harbors. The season unfolds for the readers much as it unfolded for the authors. It was quickly evident that seemingly everyone on the island had some connection to scalloping in their life, and the thread of community soon began to weave its own tale.
Family scalloping, or recreational scalloping as it is properly called, begins on October 1st and runs to March 31st. Family scallopers can gather one bushel per week, using manual techniques only, such as pushrakes or dipnets, while wading, diving, or snorkeling. It is called family season because these scalloping adventures are ideal times for families to gather and reunite over the common task of collecting, opening, and cooking the prized shellfish, and symbolically putting the summer tourist season to rest.
Commercial scalloping begins on November 1st and lasts through March 31st. Permits must be applied for by March 31st of the previous year, and cost $250.00. Commercial scallopers typically fish in shallow water from small day boats in Nantucket Harbor, Madaket Harbor, or off the neighboring island of Tuckernuck, towing several dredges behind their boats; the standard is eight. They can use power equipment and collect five bushels per day per permit, with two permits allowed per boat.
But the biggest story to unfold was told by two numbers: 117,000 and 6,800. 117,000 is the number of bushels of scallops that were landed in Nantucket waters during the 1980-81 season. 6,800 bushels was the number landed in 1998-99, by far the worst season ever. The 1999-2000 season then, would not be so typical after all - it could prove to be the Nantuckets last.
Published in 2002 by Autopscot Press, Scallop Season: A Nantucket Chronicle, written by Jim Patrick and featuring photographs by Rob Benchley, is available at the NHA Museum Store.