Reviewing an Edgartown town report from the 1920s, town shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said two of the highest paid town officials were the police chief and shellfish constable. At the time, he said, the constable routinely oversaw between 150 and 200 licensed shellfishermen.
Today there are 49 commercial bay scallop fishermen in Edgartown.
The decline in the number of commercial scallopers was just one of the many changes in the fishery that Mr. Bagnall, Oak Bluffs constable David Grunden and Tisbury constable Derek Cimeno spoke to this week.
On Tuesday the three down-Island officials met at the Gazette office to discuss the state of the bay scallop, the changing trends and the scientific work under way to revitalize a fishery that was once celebrated along the Eastern seaboard down to the Gulf of Mexico.
The three also predicted a fair season ahead for the Vineyard bay scallop fishery.
The forecast comes as early reports from Nantucket - which is believed to have the last remaining sustainable commercial scallop fishery - already point to a poor season. Cape Cod communities also are reporting a sparse harvest.
"I think it will be okay. We got 1,500 bushels last year and we'll probably do the same," Mr. Bagnall said.
Bay scallops, which occur naturally in only a few places including the Cape and Islands, are the Vineyard's premiere export in fall and winter. Every year at this time commercial shellfishermen and recreational shellfishermen head for the shore line with visions of either paying heating bills or eating these sweet morsels for dinner.
Years ago hundreds of commercial shellfishermen on the Vineyard depended on the fall harvest for their winter income. More recently, these numbers have dwindled because of declines in the fishery due to poor water quality and because there is more money to be made in trades such as carpentry. Today there are scarcely a hundred commercial shellfishermen Islandwide.
"The overall state of the bay scallop fishery is poor," said Mr. Grunden. "Something happened from 1984 to 1987. It had a major impact throughout the entire range from Cape Cod all the way down to Virginia and the Carolinas and part of the Gulf of Mexico. The bay scallop fishery all but collapsed. Nobody knows why. Nobody has been able to identify the source.
"There are many theories," he added. "One of the factors may have taken place in the Midwest, where they put up higher smoke stacks. The higher smoke stacks moved the pollution problems from the freshwater ponds to the coastal ponds." He also cited road runoff and housing development near the water as contributing factors.
"You would never think of dumping on Nebraska where our corn is grown," Mr. Bagnall said. "Yet we dump in the ocean. We wouldn't think of doing it in Nebraska but we do it to Georges Bank."
"The largest issue is nutrient loading," Mr. Grunden said. "Nitrogen is to salt water what we know phosphate is to freshwater."
Mr. Grunden said the town boards of health are moving toward requiring septic system upgrades, so that they not only reduce bacteria entering the groundwater but also cut down on the nutrient loading that eventually ends up in coastal ponds.
Since a bay scallop lives for two years and has such a short lifespan, Mr. Bagnall said, "If you have two bad years, a pond can go foul."
The constables also spoke to how their roles have changed over the years, shifting from regulatory enforcement to stewardship of the Island's coastal waters and protection of the fishery - both the current crop and future harvest.
An important element of their work is propagation, which involves floating nurseries and floating spat bags. The spat bags collect the shellfish in the larva state and then protect them from predators through the summer months. Late in the summer, shellfish constables open the bags and release the juvenile - smaller than a dime - to drop to the bottom.
Mr. Cimeno, who last year received the state shellfish constable of the year award, said protecting the fishery also includes not letting people harm the seed. Seed is the term used to describe one-year-old bay scallops.
"When I see an area that has 70 per cent seed, I won't let them fish there," Mr. Cimeno said.
The shellfish constables are aided in their efforts on a number of fronts. The Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, for example, raises millions of baby bay scallops and other shellfish each year for release in Vineyard coastal ponds.
Island towns also are participating in the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program, which uses federal and state aid to fund scientific studies that will help in the protection of marine life.
Sengekontacket Pond in Oak Bluffs and Lagoon Pond, which spans Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, are both enrolled in the project. Katama Bay and Cape Pogue Pond in Edgartown were added this year. Oak Bluffs voters will decide at their annual town meeting next spring about adding Farm Pond to the list.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is funding a study of bay scallop and eelgrass habitat in Lagoon Pond, along with two off-Island sites. Eelgrass is critical to fostering healthy habitats for bay scallops.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is in the first year of a three-year bay scallop restoration program for Menemsha Pond. The quarter million dollar project is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The recreational season for bay scalloping began in Edgartown and Chilmark on Saturday, Oct. 1. Edgartown recreational fishermen are limited to one 10-gallon wash basket per week, including shells. No dragging will be allowed in Cape Pogue during the family season until Friday, Oct. 28. The commercial season will begin in Edgartown on Oct. 31 with a limit of three 10-gallon wash baskets, level, including shells per day.
The Edgartown side of Sengekontacket, also called Anthiers, had a poor start to the season. Mr. Bagnall said by the fourth day the fishery was essentially over. "Twenty-five bushels and it is done," he said.
"Cape Pogue has small-size scallops," Mr. Bagnall said. "You really don't know until you get 30 fishermen out there on the first day," he said.
The recreational shellfish season for Oak Bluffs opens first in the waters outside of the town, in Nantucket Sound on Saturday, Oct. 22. The commercial season for outside of the pond opens on Oct. 24. Lagoon Pond opens for recreational shellfishing on Oct. 29 and opens commercially on Oct. 31. The recreational fishermen are limited to one heaping bushel. Commercial bay scallopers are limited to three struck bushels per day for the ponds and five struck bushels per day for the waters outside.
Mr. Grunden said the Oak Bluffs side of Sengekontacket Pond is essentially a "put and take" fishery. Each year he puts a lot of juvenile bay scallops into the pond. In recent years, without eelgrass beds in the pond, the pond has produced very few bay scallops on its own.
Tisbury outside waters open Saturday, Oct. 15 for family. The commercial season opens on Oct. 17 for the same waters. Lagoon Pond will open for recreational fishermen on Saturday, Oct. 29. The commercial season begins on Monday, Oct. 31. Commercial shellfishermen are limited to three level bushels per day; recreational shellfishermen are limited to one heaping bushel per week. Lake Tashmoo is closed. Mr. Cimeno said he is encouraged to note there is a growing population of bay scallops in Lake Tashmoo but it is too premature to let those shellfish be harvested.
Mr. Cimeno said that Lagoon Pond will have a good season, possibly as good as last year and there is plenty for the growing number of recreational dipnetters.
West Tisbury has neither a shellfish constable nor a season for bay scallops. But it is widely known that West Tisbury does have bay scallops off Lambert's Cove Beach and parts of Makonikey. The challenge for West Tisbury town officials will be how to manage that expanding fishery.
Chilmark selectmen opened the recreational bay scallop season on Oct. 1 with a half bushel limit. They set Nov. 1 as the first day of the commercial season with a two level bushel limit with the option to expand the limit if there are enough out there.
Selectmen in Aquinnah have yet to act on a bay scallop season. The town officials typically wait until later in the fall to open the fishery.