Photos by Jay Fleming
Last winter, photographer Jay Fleming spent eight days aboard a 79-foot fishing vessel, Italian Princess, dredging for sea scallops about 60 miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey, in an area known as the Elephant Trunk. The hours are long, and the hard work can be dangerous in heavy winter weather. The crew put in 18- to 20-hour days, a couple of them in rough conditions. On the third day, seas climbed to 17 feet, and temperatures dropped to the low 30s.
“It’s a psychological and physical test to work on these boats,” Fleming says. “It’s definitely a grind. That’s the way they describe it.”
The crew was made up of seven men, including Capt. Charles Wiscott. “I’m 31 years old, and all these guys were right around the same age as me,” Fleming says. “There was one Vietnamese crewmember, three Hispanic crewmembers, one black guy, one white guy. They were extremely friendly and very professional. All had a common bond in that they’re drawn to the water. They’re all close friends.” There was no drinking or drugs on the boat, and Fleming says the captain ran a tight ship. “It’s all business when you’re out there,” he says.
The scallops were dredged off a sandy bottom in 200 feet of water. Once the mollusks are on board, the simple shucking knife becomes an important piece of equipment. Each crewmember had bought a blank knife blade, then customized a handle from rubber tubing and grip tape. They sharpened the blades with a grinder on the boat. The men spent the majority of their time opening shells and removing the scallop as loud, high-tempo music blared.
The cutting room was protected from the elements, but there was no view of the water, just a stainless steel sink into which the scallops were dumped. The crew put the meat in a bucket, and the shells and discards went in a little trough to be tossed back into the sea. The boat caught 306,000 scallops over the course of six days, which means each crewmember cut approximately 44,000 scallops. Fleming believes the price scallops fetch reflects the nature of the work.
The crew typically goes out for eight days at a time, then takes five or six days off. Fleming says some of the men work other jobs on the water, such as a deckhand. A couple do odd jobs. Some just go home and relax.
Fleming hopes his photographs will give people a better understanding of the work that goes into getting scallops onto somebody’s plate. “It’s a dangerous job. You’re out at sea for a long time, and people are away from their families,” the photojournalist says. “They basically don’t have a life when they’re working. That’s gotta be tough.