Scallop Dump Memories
by Charlotte Lloyd
Scallops. The luxury seafood. So sweet, succulent and rich, who can resist them? Calicos were scarce until 1980, but then things changed. Large beds of calico scallops, Argopecten gibbus (Linn', 1758) were discovered off Florida's East Coast. News of the calico beds in Florida brought boats from North Carolina to Texas, and fishermen swarmed the Cape Canaveral docks. The heyday had begun. Not only was it a bonanza for fishermen, processors, retailers and seafood lovers, but shell collectors soon discovered the by-catch coming in with the scallops -- SHELLS! The Cape Canaveral processors were dumping the by-catch at several sites around the Cape. The word was out -- shellers swarmed! Those lucky collectors who lived nearby could go any time they wanted; for those of us in Jacksonville it was just a 3 hour drive. What a grand time it was! Armed with buckets, rakes, plastic bags and coolers, we would make a day of it, digging, discovering, bending over odiferous mounds until our noses and our backs couldn't take any more. The bonanza lasted for several years.
Then one evening, My husband Vic came home from diving and said, "I dove a spot today, really thick with scallops in about 110" of water. I gave the LORAN reading to a friend that's scalloping, and he is going to check it out." It turned out to be a very large bed. Scallops had arrived offshore of Mayport! Soon we had a processing plant in St. Augustine, and scallops were being unloaded at local docks on both sides of the St. Johns River. I had the good fortune to work at a school in Mayport, just one half block from where they unloaded! It was a simple task to keep track of the boats when they left, figure when they would return with their harvests and be there to meet them. Why, it even became mundane. Did I want to go collect shells today?
Working the conveyor belt was great for shells an inch or larger. Standing on a box, I would look at the belt as it moved along bearing its assortment of scallops, along with fish, shrimp, crabs, starfish, sponges, horse conchs and the occasional barnacle-encrusted drink can. They were so used to me working the conveyor belt that I soon acquired the duty of "large sealife remover," the person in charge of keeping objects from jamming the belt). The feat was to try to find a cone, nutmeg, cowrie- helmet or other treasure and grab it before it traveled out of reach, while also grabbing large broken horse conchs and other bottom debris and flinging them in a box for the dump. And grab them I did; but all those buckets of shells carried home had to be cleaned. This meant boiling and microwaving the fresh shells. Sometimes I froze the larger ones. I had heard of a method, and soon discovered it worked quite well, especially when arriving home at midnight, tired, aching, dazed and splattered. I sealed all shells under 4 inches in gallon containers with one-half water, one-half pure pine oil; this way they could be stored until I was ready to deal with them. If I used this method, they would not smell when I opened the jar, and if I left them for several weeks, the pine oil would partially dissolve the animals, leaving the opercs in the bottom of the container. This method was even OK for glossy shells like Oliva bollingi bifasciata Clench, 1937. The pine oil protected the shells from the acid of the decaying flesh. Some jars sat in my garage for three years. It was a monumental task, trying to keep up with all the shells carried home. But they were destined for land fill -- it seemed such a waste to leave them!
Then there were the scallop dumps. This is where the by- catch ended up (usually somewhere out in the woods away from habitation). I'll try to describe it for those of you who have never shelled a scallop dump. Picture, if you will, a 12-foot high and 30-foot wide pile of empty scallop shells, with just about every kind of sea life from the ocean floor thrown in. It wasn't too bad collecting at the dumps in winter, but summer could be brutal. The heat combined with the ammonia fumes rising from the pile of decaying animals would cause your eyes to burn and water, and it was difficult to breathe. Flies were everywhere. Large shells such as Cassis madagascariensis spinella Clench, 1944, Pleuroploca gigantea (Kiener, 1840), Muricanthus fulvescens Sowerby, 1834, Tonna galea (Linn', 1758) and Busycon sinistrum Hollister, 1958 would be at the base of the piles, where they had rolled because of their weight. John Timmerman recalls of his one visit to a dump in North Carolina, "I thought the odor was bad when I first arrived; upon opening the pile with a rake, I had to position myself up-wind from the hole. After two hours of digging I finally had to call a break to get away from the stench. My wife Nancy has no sense of smell; she can only imagine why I wanted to get away from this pile of shells. I did gather up several dozen of the least battered examples of the most amazingly dark Strombus alatus I had ever seen, as well as Fasciolaria, Busycon, Phalium and Distorsio."
Dump wearing apparel was always important -- you didn't want to wear anything good, because it was impossible to remove the smell from your clothing. I started wearing my white rubber fishing boots (for which I took ribbing), because I got tired of throwing away cloth tennis shoes; and besides, my feet felt more protected in the boots. Those broken shells, fish bones and assorted forms of sea life could be sharp. On one occasion our group (Jacksonville Shell Club members and friends) were at the dumps at St. Augustine; it was early summer and it was HOT! When we arrived that morning, we were greeted by a six foot wide, 3 inch deep undulating "sea of maggots" around the mountainous pile. Of course I put on my rubber boots and waded right through, while others tried to find ways to get across the maggot moat in their tennis shoes. I never heard any more about my boots, and later noticed that others had taken to wearing them. That particular day was a great one for finding large Junonias. Most of us had found several when my friend Billie Brown started lamenting that she couldn't find one. Norman Paschall, being the kind-hearted person that he is, sidled up to her and slipped a particularly choice specimen into her pants pocket. Billie later said, "I really appreciated Norm's thoughtfulness, but I wish he had shaken the maggots out of it first." Collecting at the scallop dumps was definitely not for the faint-of-heart. However, it was something both the scientific collector and shell crafters could do together. There was great camaraderie, the collectors all trying to outdo each other with a terrific "find," while from the crafters we would hear, "Look at these shells! They'll make great duck feet!"
I think the best of times were the days spent at Ft. George Island where the scallop tailings had been used as landfill. We spent many a day sitting on the sand/shell mounds (old ones that were cured), and sifting through the sand looking for small shells. It was such an enjoyable way to spend the day, and productive too. For we were in the process of keeping a checklist of marine mollusks occurring offshore in our area, and the scallop tailings greatly added to it. It became a contest to see if you could find anything new for the list. Of course what couldn't be identified was promptly taken to Harry Lee for his inspection. Harry states, "Of the approximately 750 species of marine mollusks we have recorded from the continental shelf of NE Florida, more than half have come to our attention through the examination of the scallop fishery's by-catch. I estimate that nearly 100 species are known to our group SOLELY as a product of this ephemeral enterprise. A fair proportion of these 100 species are known from the dissection of the entrails of mollusk predators, especially two species of batfish, again taken as by- catch by the fleet." Harry was a dedicated batfish dissector. I tried it several times and soon decided I would rather sort through sand than batfish guts.
Before the days of scallop boats, my collection consisted of shells that I have found while SCUBA diving. Our reefs off Mayport are fairly deep, 80-140', which limits bottom time, so my collection was definitely lacking some of the small, rarer shells. The scallop boat tailings helped fill that void. I was able to add specimens like Niso hendersoni Bartsch, 1953, Cirsotrema dalli Rehder, 1945, Olssonella smithii (Dall, 1888), Trigonostoma tenerum (Philippi, 1848), Distorsio constricta mcgintyi (Emerson and Puffer, 1953, Callista eucymata (Dall, 1890) and color variations of Chlamys benedicti Verrill and Bush, 1897), plus micros that I will never find diving.
Jim and Linda Brunner of Panama City, on the west coast of Florida, also were fortunate to have had access to the scalloping process in their area. They too helped cull the catch while the boats unloaded. Linda states, "The best thing to come from the scalloping was all the new species that we were able to add to our area species list, and the information gained about the scalloping process. We were able to establish several range extensions when we reviewed the literature available." A friend, who owns a 65' shrimp boat, started scalloping in the off-season when shrimping was poor. He invited me and my sister-in-law, Gail Motes, to make a trip with him so we could see first hand what it was like to go scalloping. My husband's parting words to us were, "Stay alert! You know these scallop boats capsize all the time." Yes, I did know that, but preferred not to think about it. The fact remains, when shrimp boats are used for scalloping, an activity for which they are not designed, problems can arise. Shrimp boats are designed for the catch to go into the hold below deck; the catch then acts as ballast to help steady the vessel. When scallops are piled on top of the deck, the added weight makes these boats very top-heavy.
Once we arrived at the scallop grounds the wind picked up to 15 knots, and we had about a 10' ground swell. Just our luck. Every time a particularly large wave hit, we held our breath -- was this the one that would send us over? The scallops were plentiful, and they dragged their nets only 20 minutes for each haul before bringing them aboard. Any longer and the winches and cables wouldn't have been able to lift the thousands of pounds onto deck. Scalloping is extremely dangerous work. The two crew members had to crawl over the top of the slippery scallops piled up to the gunwales, trying not to lose their footing, while working the winch and emptying the nets. If one of them slipped and fell overboard, finding him would be very hard, for it was night and the seas rough. With all this going on, we just stayed out of the way of the workers. The only shells that I collected on this trip were a beautiful black olive, Oliva pattersoni Clench, 1945, and several Lyropecten nodosus (Linn‚, 1758).
Several factors have contributed to the decline in scalloping: Overharvesting by fishermen in an industry that was not then regulated. Wasted juvenile scallops. Invasion of nematode parasites in the scallop muscle (which continues today). Environmental concerns about dumping the heated discharge water from processing plants into local waterways, which endangers wetlands. Waste disposal and dumping scallop byproducts in landfills. (Laws in most areas now make it necessary to cover the by-catch with sand within several hours.) There for a while it looked like the industry was trying to kill itself. Then the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, the Florida Department of Agriculture, and the FDA stepped in to find a solution for these problems.
Scalloping still continues on a smaller scale, on both the east and west coasts of Florida. It is virtually impossible to gain permission to be admitted to any scallop facility nowadays. Liability insurance coverage is usually the reason given for not allowing access to shellers. I'm sure reports of plant owners being sued had something to do with that situation. I know at Fort George a collector talked a dock owner into letting her stand by a conveyer belt to collect, she fell, broke an arm, and then sued the owner. Incidents like this stopped the activity for all of us. Most of us have heard about the sheller buried by scallops when he wouldn't get out of the way of the dump truck at the scallop dumps at Cape Canaveral.
It sure was fun while it lasted. I think about all of the times I could have collected and didn't. Reminds me of a 1969 Mary Hopkin song, "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end!"