It’s simple, on paper: tow the dredge and catch the scallops; remove scallops from shell; place scallops on ice in the hold; bring to dock; sell. Scalloping is brutal on the hands, wrists, and forearms. It is tendonitis on steroids. Most people can’t hack it. And there’s neck pain—these guys rarely look up from their scalloping cutting. I don’t know if they know what a sea horizon even looks like. The trip I made—as a writer—the scallops were so thick on the bottom that we could only tow the dredges for a few minutes before they had to be hauled back. In 24 hours we only made four or five twenty-minute tows. The port and starboard dredges had enough scallops in them to keep the boys pinned to the cutting boxes for hours. By the start of the fourth day the Karen Elizabeth had her trip and we headed home.
Scalloping is all about efficiency. Number of tows, length of tow, number of meats per pound, numbers of meats cut per watch/ man. These guys have a good idea what they will earn on each trip. And they want to do it fast. If you can’t pull your weight as a cutter then you’ll actually cost the boat money. It matters little how good of a guy you are; if you know right from left, up from down. If you’re fast, you got a shot at landing a job. If not, see you later.
The trip I made was a thing of beauty. I’d never seen anything like it. The sea floor must’ve been carpeted in scallops. I have done my share of towing things around the ocean floor—nets and oyster drags. But this had a different flavor. A scallop dredge has a certain no bullshit look to it. These are not pillowcases. Everything on a scallop boat is heavy, from the dredges to the shackles.
Despite the work, these boats are very hard to land a site on. The money is too good and the season is too short. These boats are at sea about 78 days a year, with trip lengths ranging from 4 to 15 days. The rest of the year they’re either tied to the dock or they convert over and target something else like codfish or squid.
All the photographs are from the same trip. The Karen Elizabeth was fishing in an area known as the Nantucket Lightship. When I look at these pictures all I can hear is scalloper noise: the shells make a noise when they fall from the dredges and they make a noise when the cutters shuck them and fling the empty shells against the stainless backs of the cutting boxes. And the dredges make noise and the wire makes noise and the winches make noise and the stereo speakers on deck make noise, often a very loud one, of rock and roll.