On Wednesday morning, under a warm sun and blue sky, David and Karen Berube were out on Cape Pogue Pond, at it again.
In a small boat in the middle of the pond, the husband and wife team were busy working ropes, hauling chain drags and culling through thick piles of knotted eelgrass in their orange waders and hooded sweatshirts. They worked in tandem, quickly, methodically, almost urgently. He hauled and she culled, filling large plastic milk crates lined up in the stern with their coveted catch: fresh Edgartown bay scallops.
After several hours, the Berubes were more than halfway to filling their six-bushel quota (three bushels per person), with still more hours to go before heading to the fish market to sell their catch.
"It's been pretty good the last couple of days," Mr. Berube said, dumping a pile of scallops onto the culling board. After hesitating, he added: "But, we'll see."
It is a November ritual that is familiar to shellfishermen across the Island, and Mr. Berube's assessment reflects the general sentiment about this year's harvest.
"It's not our best year, but not our worst year either," Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said. "We've got about 18 to 22 boats heading out to Cape Pogue Pond each day. We'll just have to wait to see."
On Wednesday morning, just over two dozen scallop boats dotted the pond, and opinions varied slightly depending on who you asked.
Scott Castro, enjoying the pleasant weather, echoed Mr. Bagnall. "I'd say this year is somewhere in the middle," he said.
Roy Scheffer and his daughter, Kimberly, who had been out since 7 a.m., were pleased with their morning's work: a full six bushels before 11 a.m. "I guess we found the right spot," Mr. Scheffer said.
Robbie Coad, working alone, gave this year's crop "a four out of 10."
The Berubes have been scalloping the pond for years and have seen a sharp decline in scallops. Although the first weeks in Cape Pogue typically yield more than enough for each fisherman to net a three-bushel limit, this season the couple is careful not to predict anything based on the early returns. They, like others among them, are wondering how long their chainers, or chain drags, will continue to produce the tasty bivalves.
"I remember when there were over 80 boats out there," said Edgartown harbor master Charlie Blair. "In 1978, the limit was five bushels, and every boat out there had two people working. We were bringing in thousands of bushels a day for weeks."
Since those banner years, Island scallops have been on the decline. Last year, Edgartown shellfishermen landed 6,875 bushels compared to 7,930 bushels in 2002. In 2001, just under 9,900 bushels were brought in from Edgartown waters.
"We've really taken a knock here," Mr. Blair said. "Guys could make around $25,000 in several months if they worked every day. That's good money. Now, they're not making anything close to that."
Daniel Larsen of Edgartown Seafood agreed.
"We are buying and selling enough to get by," he said on Wednesday. "But it's not as good as last year. And unlike other years, we're not selling any off-Island."
Mr. Larsen said he has seen about 800 to 900 hundred pounds of scallops come in per week this year, down sharply from previous years.
"I'd buy 600 or 700 pounds a day back when the fishing was good," he said. "Now it just seems like there's hardly anything coming in."
At the Net Result in Vineyard Haven, Jeffrey Maida agreed.
"It doesn't look like a good year around here," he said yesterday morning. "For one thing, there aren't a lot of guys going out. Lots of them have already given up, and that doesn't usually happen until after Thanksgiving."
Mr. Maida said bad weather may have played a role in the poor numbers the first two weeks. Most of the scallopers he talked to were hesitant to go out in the recent spate of bad weather because they were not certain they would bring in their limit.
"A lot of them didn't feel it was worth it," he said.
Mr. Maida said the Net Result buys on average 300 pounds a day this season. That is down significantly from previous years, when the market bought roughly 700 to 1,000 pounds per day.
He and Mr. Larsen both said that after several successful seasons, the take from the Lagoon has been scant.
"Most of our scallops are coming from Edgartown, with only a few from Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven," Mr. Maida said. He said he had received no scallops from Chilmark.
Tisbury commercial shellfishermen landed a surprisingly high number of bushels last year - 1,800 compared with just 634 bushels in 2002 and 729 bushels in 2001.
The reason for the decline is hard to pinpoint. Many experts believe it is directly linked to the health of the eelgrass, while some argue predator population and water quality are the main factors.
"But weren't there predators before, when the population was up?" Mr. Blair asked. "The truth is, no one really knows for sure."
As of Wednesday, the market price for scallops was $12 per pound, a price Mr. Larsen said is about average. Edgartown Seafood was selling scallops at a special price for just under $14 per pound while the Net Result's price was a dollar higher.
Meanwhile, Nantucket is said to be enjoying a boon this season, Mr. Larsen said.
"They're loaded over there. I heard they're having another record year. That really hurts local fishermen here. It makes no economic sense to compete in off-Island markets when that happens."
Nantucket markets were paying scallopers $10 a pound this week.
If there is any consolation, it may be the large quantity of healthy scallop seed found in the ponds, a good harbinger for next year. Mrs. Berube said she found lots of seed as she combed through the Cape Pogue eelgrass on the culling board.
"That's always a good thing for the future," she said.
Still, Mr. Coad cautioned against too much optimism. He said he has seen lots of seed before, as recently as last year. As he hoisted his latest catch on board, he wondered aloud at what many fishermen are asking themselves early this season.
"And where did it all go?" he asked. "There was lots of the little stuff last year. Where is it now?"