The great Chatham bay scallop fishery

Jan 25, 2023 | Charting the Past

A big bay scallop, from Eastham. Cape Cod Fishermen’s Wives photo.

By Bill Amaru

Every year around this time, some of us think back to when skiffs from Stage Harbor to Ryder’s Cove were outfitted with bay scallop dredges.

They had culling boards and a mast with a block and tackle to haul the dredge, filled with succulent bivalves, into the boat. These vessels were small, usually about 18 to 20 feet. They didn’t have huge outboard motors we see on present-day runabouts moored in the same harbors; rather than double and even triple outboards of 300 horsepower on elaborate fiberglass hulls, wooden skiffs with 18 to perhaps 40 horsepower were the rule.

These skiffs were working boats, their owners working men and women. Some were full-time fishermen. Most were tradesmen who took advantage of great sets of bay scallops that once graced shoals and eelgrass beds of our native waters.

The months of October, November and December were very important as mature and tasty bivalves were sought by fishers all around the bays within our estuaries. They even made their way to markets off-Cape. Prices were considered high at about three dollars per pound returned to the fishermen.

The flavor of the abductor muscle is so delicate and delicious it nearly defies description. A bay scallop is one of the true gifts our coastal waters. The income derived, while small, was very important and provided a maritime social network a few of us still remember.

A cottage industry existed for opening shells and scraping out small meats. Basements and shucking houses of citizens of this sea-town who opened their catch at the end of the day made for places of salty and local repartee. I remember Bob and Del Hyora’s basement cutting house off Barcliff Road. Del (Mrs. Hyora) was an expert shucker. Del opened for her sons Mark and Nick as well as a few others. She opened some of my catch, taken from Orleans’ waters in Cape Cod Bay.

The 1970s produced enormous catches in the bay and the shells were big but the meats were small compared to Chatham. As I carried my bushel baskets down the basement stairs she would say, “Boy, Billy, can’t you find something better than these peanuts you keep bringing me?”

Shuckers worked on a per-pound payout so small meats meant small pay. The rate was one dollar a pound of cut meat and at 50 to 60 per pound, Del would cut for hours and make twenty dollars at best. Still, she never refused my baskets.

When delivered to the marketplace, usually Nickerson’s at the fish pier, the scallop meat brought three dollars a pound. The 1970s were good years for a bay scalloper.

The bay scallop is a mollusk that inhabited the shallow bays from our Massachusetts shores to the Gulf of Mexico. We are indeed lucky that our Cape and Islands represents the northern limit of its historic range on the North American continent. As our climate warms, we may no longer own that distinction.

I have to speak in the past tense because bay scallops are no longer available in numbers that make the fishery a true fishery. Sets that kept more than 100 boats busy for the entire fall into winter are gone. Eelgrass beds and clean, oxygen-rich waters necessary for the young to grow are nearly depleted. There are so few left in Chatham that it has become impractical to drag a dredge or two and try to make a little money, despite the modern price of $28-$30 per pound to the fisherman — an amazing $60 per pound to the consumer.

The few scallops caught are mostly “landed” by herring and black-back gulls.

Gulls drop them at landings, on docks and boats on their moorings. Dropped from high above, shells break open and provide a small meal.

So what happened? Why don’t we have them in numbers that allow for a fishery?

Have you noticed the explosion of emerald lawns, many close to or right on the water? Have you observed how, even in July and August, when it hasn’t rained a lick in weeks, 85 degrees day after day, they remain greener than green?

This was not the case when there were thousands of bushels of scallops landed every fall. Summer was the season of the “Cape Cod lawn” — dried out, brown, dormant — as nature intended. In September with the return of cooling rains and the lower angle of the sun, grassy fields and yards greened up again, like they did every fall.

It’s safe to say the loss of bay scallops over the past 30 to 40 years was caused by in-ground watering systems and the growing use of chemical fertilizers in towns surrounding our common estuaries. Run-off from those fertilized lawns and the high rate of nitrogen from our own waste stream, only partially controlled by sewering, has depleted oxygen and smothered eelgrass beds that were nurseries and hiding places for millions of creatures that no longer live among us.

Is there a chance we could see a return to a scallop fishery? Yes. The Atlantic Ocean is still remarkably clean and pristine. If we were to lower or eliminate excess nitrogen and other plant stimulants from entering our estuaries, we would return to the natural habitat that would support a bay scallop fishery again. Other shellfish and finfish, presently absent from much of our waters, would return as well.

Orleans and Nantucket have voted to curtail fertilizer use. The hope is that soon other Cape communities will pass and enforce similar ordinances.

My mother often told me and my siblings, “You don’t miss that which you never had.” It is difficult to explain what it means to go out and catch your own dinner or earn money from the sweat of your brow or the calluses of your hands. Many of our new neighbors purchase bay scallops for $60 or more per pound. I am happy they can. But there are still some of us who would prefer to catch our own.

We all can do something to make that possible and we all would be better off for it.


Bill Amaru joins a handful of fishermen who still go bay scalloping on Cape Cod Bay, which is  one of the final local hold-outs of argopecten irradians, the bay scallop.



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