of a Mongress

by Laura Foley Ramsden

Deep Dive into the Nantucket Bay Scallop Fishery

Small Scale Fishery With Sugar Sweet Harvest

The local New England bay scallop season is underway so it seemed like an ideal time to dive into this small scale fishery. In a culinary world that prizes BIG, these scallops are small but their size belies a beautiful, big sweet flavor. They are harvested off the coastline of Nantucket, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Long Island. My granddad, my dad and my husband have all participated in the Nantucket fishery. “You are what you eat” and these scallops thrive in an eco-system that give them their characteristic delicate, and sugar-sweet flavor. 

The Harvest

These scallops are harvested by 18-26 foot outboard boats outfitted with small chain link dredges. Each year adult bay scallops spawn about 2 million eggs called spat.  These spat attach themselves to the nearest underwater plant life which is usually eel grass, and depend on tidal currents for their nourishment.  When the scallop grows to one and one-half inches in width it releases itself from the eel grass and becomes self-propelled by sucking in water and then forcefully ejecting it.  The scallop is considered mature when it reaches a width of about three inches. 

Protected Fishery Because the Nantucket Bay scallop lives only two years, scallopers must be careful not to dredge up too many “seed” or juvenile scallops, for that would endanger the following year’s harvest.  All seed scallops must be culled out and returned to the ocean.  If the air temperature falls below 28° F, no scalloping is allowed because the young seed would freeze and die before being returned to the water.

Each boat that fishes is allowed two licensed fishermen and each fisherman is allowed 5 bushels of shell stock per day.  Upon filling this daily quota of 10 bushels per day per boat, the boats return to the dock.  Here they are checked by the warden for size and amount of catch.  The scallops are then delivered to the shanties where the openers take over.  It usually takes about 4 hours to open 10 bushels of shell stock and the ten bushels yield approximately 80 pounds of scallop meats.  These pure, less than one day old scallops are iced and flown off or ferried off island each day to be packed and shipped from a Foley plant.


The Nantucket Bay scallop fishery starts each November 1st and lasts approximately 3 months, with significant production during November and December. We get a limited amount each day and fishing can be interrupted owing to colder temperatures or adverse weather. Eel grass degradation caused by run off, warming waters and other factors has led to fewer harvests each year hence the strong pricing. The island of Nantucket is actively working on measures to preserve the eel grass in their harbors.


Our Portland Maine fish buyer, Bill Gerencer, tells a story of Frank Foley criticizing him for overcooking the scallops - Bill was new and didn't realize that "medium raw" is the best way to enjoy a Nantucket bay scallop... Just the lightest sear to caramelize the outside will best showcase the sweetness inherent to these beautiful scallops.

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