The canary in the eel grass bed

If you didn’t figure it out from our email note last week, let us make it clear: we are pretty much data nerds. We find data to be both compelling and interesting. And one stat that has been followed semi-religiously by the town and by fishermen is the scallop harvest. It won’t surprise long-time islanders when we say that the scallop fishery has declined. 

Just how much has it declined? Hope you’re sitting down. Here are the hard numbers. 

In 1980, the scallop harvest was 120,000 bushels. 
In 1990 the harvest was 40,000 bushels. 
In 2000, it was half that or 20,000 bushels. 
In 2010, a year in which the season was extended in the middle of a paralyzing economic downturn, the total was around 18,000.
And last year, the harvest dipped to 3,000 bushels. 

That’s a decline of 97.5% over 39 years. It remains to be seen if closing the windswept cranberry bog and recent efforts to plant eelgrass will reverse this trend. But we can remain hopeful and stalwart in our support of these kinds of efforts. We applaud the local organizations that are doing this vital work. 

Now let’s look at another trend: population.

In 1980, the census counted 5,087 people.
in 1990, there were 6,012.
in 2000 the census number was 9,520.
In 2010 (even in the middle of a paralyzing economic downturn) the count climbed to 10,172.
And the estimates for 2020 are anywhere from 15,000 (a likely US Census outcome) to 19,000 (the Nantucket Data Platform current estimate) year-round residents. But let’s go with a conservative number of 15,000. 

That’s a 40-year increase in the island’s population of 195%. 

Imagine, if you will, the scallop harvest over the past 40 years graphed with a big red line on an x/y axis from left to right, 120,000 down to 3,000. And then superimpose that over a similar graph in red of the population growing from left to right, 5,000 up to 15,000. Can you picture that big, red X in your mind? We can. 

Now, we are not saying that the rise in population directly caused a decrease in the scallop harvest. But we can say with relative certainty that the sheer blunt force trauma of human activity on Nantucket — boats, building, green lawns, failing septic systems, and more — has had an unmistakable impact on the natural resources of the island. And that we all ought to view the scallop as a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Because if the scallop finally goes, our sense of community and quality of life will not be far behind. 

See you next week. 

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