Nantucket Bay Scallops
There are many varieties of bay scallops, but none is as sought after by chefs and gourmets around the world as Bay Scallops from Nantucket. This gourmet delicacy is favored by the kitchens of five-star restaurants, and prominently featured in gourmet markets from New York to San Francisco.
Nantucket’s waters are known among shellfish biologists, fishmongers and seafood connoisseurs as harboring the last remaining viable bay scallop population on the East Coast of the United States.
From the mid-1870s to the early 1980s, bay scallops were harvested commercially along the East Coast. Shrinking habitat, overfishing and pollution eventually led to the bay scallop’s decline. Nantucket's commercial fishery is the world's oldest continually sustained wild bay scallop fishery. Its limited seasonal catch is available fresh only from November through the end of March.
Sometimes called weathervane scallops, are those you see most restaurant menus. They a seared or sliced thin and often served raw as sushi or crudo.
Sea scallops are usually harvested using large scallop dredges or bottom trawl. Some are harvested by divers and hand-caught on the ocean floor. Diver scallops tend to be less gritty and arrive at market quicker and are therefore usually fresher.
BAY SCALLOP RESEARCH
The Nantucket Shellfish Association supports research related to Nantucket's shellfish, water quality, and shellfish propagation. Inquiries on the funding process can be sent here. All research grant proposals are vetted through an independent committee of experts under the auspices of The Nantucket Land Council.
A project funded by the Nantucket Shellfish Association in 2015 led to the discovery that the black stringy algae that now regularly covers parts of Nantucket Harbor is a species never seen this far north before. Dr. Pia Moisander of UMass Dartmouth used DNA analysis to show that this cyanobacteria is called Hydrocoluem sp. It may be here because of warming ocean temperatures.
Scallop survivorship, spawning behavior, and habitat. An ongoing eight-year study headed by Dr. Peter Boyce. Aim is to better understand the eelgrass habitat, density of predators, invasive algae, and man-made pollutants affecting Nantucket's wild shellfish population. Co-sponsored with the Maria Mitchell Association. Recent results show drastic declines in eelgrass. Read a brief summary report by Peter Boyce here.
Importance of the fall spawn in maintaining a sustainable wild population
Importance of the fall spawn in maintaining a sustainable wild population of Nantucket bay scallops. A six-year study by Dr. Valerie Hall. Scallops that spawn in the late fall play a vital role in sustaining a viable wild bay scallop population in Nantucket’s waters. This dissertation study elucidates our understanding of factors that may induce or inhibit the fall spawn. Co-sponsored with the Maria Mitchell Association.
Genetic determinants of scallop lifespan
The Nantucket bay scallop has a remarkably brief lifespan—typically just two years (vs. 7-10 years for close relatives). This study by Dr. Stephen Estabrooks identified the genetic cause of the Nantucket bay scallop’s short lifespan and, incidentally, sheds new light on human genetics. Co-sponsored with the Town of Nantucket.
The eelgrass in Nantucket is the life-giver, directly or indirectly, for pretty much everything that grows, swims, crawls and lives in Nantucket's harbors and estuaries. This amazing sea grass is the harbors’ multi-tasking organism on which near-shore marine life depends.
Bay scallops need eelgrass to live. Scallop larvae attach to eelgrass blades after two weeks of hanging out in the water following a spawning event. Once they grow shells and detach, they live within the eelgrass beds. These beds concentrate plankton and algae, which scallops eat by filtering the salt water through their gills. Shellfish species in general (quahogs, soft shell clams and others) rely on eelgrass in similar ways.
Nantucket’s water quality supports vigorous eelgrass growth and a high diversity of species. Eelgrass is a key gauge of harbor health.
In addition to serving as a marine animal nursery and a safe zone, eelgrass acts as a baffle in the water, concentrating plankton and other microscopic foods for shellfish and other marine animals in these areas.
This video shows one of the threats to Nantucket's eelgrass beds.
Preserving this unique resource is no small task. Much has been done; much must continue to be done. All of us - whether residents or visitors to Nantucket - must work to reduce the nitrates that run off into the harbor from our fertilizers. Aging septic tanks need to be upgraded and sewer lines must be extended to eliminate pollutants that find their way into our bays. We must make boating enthusiasts aware of the need to actively respect and avoid disturbing the eelgrass that nurtures our shellfish. Finally, Nantucketer's can aid in the preservation efforts by supporting organizations like the Nantucket Shellfish Association.
HISTORY AND TRADITION
Bay scallops were not always considered a delicacy. In fact, in the early 1800s, they were used as bait for cod-fishing. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that they became popular, and islanders quickly realized Nantucket was surrounded by a valuable commodity, literally waiting each season to be scooped off the bottom, shipped to the mainland and sold at a premium.
The bay scallop has been an icon across history
ASK FOR AUTHENTIC!
Why you should always ask for authentic Nantucket Bay Scallops
The Nantucket Shellfish Association has trademarked the Nantucket Bay Scallop. This step was taken to protect the integrity of the fishery and reduce fraudulent sales.
These labels should be in any fish market that sells authentic Nantucket Bay Scallops.
Scallops shipped from Nantucket have special tags and stickers to indicate authenticity.
“An integral part of Nantucket’s rich heritage, the bay scallop fishery continues to provide an important livelihood for islanders. With competition from the farm-raised scallop industry abroad and significant misrepresentation in the seafood business, we felt compelled to act on the fishery’s behalf. Bay scallops leaving the island will include branded shellfish tags and packing stickers. Island retailers and shippers will also have brochures and retail tags to use in promoting the product. We believe consumers will appreciate knowing that if they want authentic bay scallops from Nantucket, they should look for the Nantucket Bay Scallops logo."
-Dan Drake, former NSA president
Family scalloping on Nantucket is a unique tradition that allows anyone to purchase a permit and get out on the water to collect delicious Nantucket Bay Scallops. It connects islanders and visitors alike to Nantucket's bountiful natural resources and beautiful harbors. For more information about obtaining a licesnse, visit:
They rise before dawn to be on the water by 6:30 a.m. between November and March (unless the temperature drops below 28 degrees or the wind is howling). They set out in small, open-decked boats, frequently alone, or with just a partner to help them haul their dredges. Locating scallops requires an intimate knowledge of the complex, ever-changing contours of the harbor floor, though most have never seen it. There’s also the risk of snagging another scalloper’s dredge, a costly and time-consuming setback.
Commercial scallopers haul their catch from the bottom with dredges dragged behind their boats. “It’s very complex. There is so much to it with the natural changes in each season. November fishing is very different from March fishing,” said Marina Finch, who got her start with long-time scalloper Neil Cocker.
In a banner year they are often back at the dock and enjoying a cup of coffee by 9 a.m., secure in the knowledge that they’ve just brought in several hundred dollars worth of succulent shellfish.
Once the scallop boat is back at the dock, the scallops, still in their shells, are brought ashore and taken to a shucking shanty, where they wait to be opened. With three quick flicks of a knife blade, veteran shuckers open the shells and separate the meat. It’s a repetitive job, but the best shuckers can go through thousands of shellfish a day. And the industry couldn’t survive without them.