Dangerous But Lucrative Business: Maine Scallop Diving

Scallop diving is dangerous business, make no mistake about it. Divers plunge into the icy waters of downeast Maine, sometimes sixty to seventy feet down, all while the water temperature sits in the mid 30s and the winter winds howl above its choppy surface. It’s dangerous all right, but it’s also profitable, and that’s what makes it such good work.

Allan H. Johnson, a lifelong resident of Winter Harbor, tends his lobster boat three days a week in the winter months, providing direct access for scallop divers to the cold and stormy waters off the Schoodic Peninsula. “I been fishing since I was 12,” he says, as he stands on the town dock on a bitter February morning. “These boys that dive make good money, and I get thirty percent, so it’s worth it for me.” Johnson runs his boat all over the area to find good scalloping grounds. “I been all the way up to Steuben and back down to Mount Desert Island. Don’t matter what the weather or where we are going, you ain’t gonna find better work around here in the winter.”

Johnson’s crew, which usually changes every week, is a perfect example of this lucrative pursuit. Just ask Robert Prescott, a diver for seventeen years, who makes the daily trip all the way from Belfast just to get work. “It’s a long way to come, but the money is worth it,” he explains. “I can’t find nothing else better than this.”

Scallop diving is monitored by the state, which only allows forty-five days on the water each season. Johnson believes that they are worried about the possibility of total stock depletion. “Hey, some days I can make a thousand dollars and some days I can make three hundred. All depends on when the state will let us out.” He explains that not only does the state set the forty-five day limit, but it also determines which days the divers can go into the wter. “I swear they pick the worst days,” Johnson remarks. “We been out here this year when the wind has been blowing sixty five at least.”

The divers are hearty individuals, ready and willing to risk their lives for a good payday. I learn that they typically shoot for five hundred to six hundred pounds of scallops on any given day, but will make do with what they collect. “Hell, the price was seven dollars a pound ‘round Christmas,” Johnson says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Now we’re lucky if we can get us two dollars.”

As the sun rises over Winter Harbor’s snug inner harbor, I watch as the divers exit their trucks, haul their gear down the ramp to the dock, and head off into the vast expanse of Frenchman’s Bay. I imagine them diving down into the murky depths of the ocean searching for that big payday. My body shudders at the thought. Scallop diving may be an acquired taste to some, but for the hardy fishermen of downeast Maine, it is as common as the cold weather in February, and the accompanying ice that blankets the skiffs here.