Standing at the water’s edge overlooking Nantucket Harbor, Tara Riley explained that she had never heard of the famed island before she applied to become the town's shellfish biologist in 2009. But now, ten years later, she said, she can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Perched at the entrance to Nantucket Harbor at Brant Point, the Town of Nantucket Shellfish Propagation Facility resembles a one-room schoolhouse on stilts. And it’s where Riley manages what is essentially a shellfish fertility clinic, growing clams and oysters — and more importantly, wild bay scallops — that she will release into the harbor to grow and mature. With Riley's help, Nantucket’s shellfish hatchery is producing billions of larvae to help stabilize one of the last commercially viable wild bay scallop populations in the world.

Her job is no less than to save an historic industry that was nearly lost to pollution in the harbor from sewage and fertilizers. Wild bay scallops have generated revenue in Nantucket for 150 years, replacing the whaling industry after it shifted to New Bedford. Like whaling, commercial scalloping provided an important independence from the mainland.

"It's pretty rare to have the town have a program like we have," Riley said. "It just speaks to the fact of how important the bay scallop fishery is to the community and how much they want to preserve it."

The wild bay scallop is a sweet and tender — and smaller — cousin of the much more common sea scallop. Found only in coastal waters from Cape Cod to Texas and parts of Mexico, wild bay scallop fisheries have been disappearing over the past 50 years. The cool waters of Nantucket Sound are a perfect habitat for bay scallops, which use the native inshore eelgrass as both a nursery and cover from predators and hard surf.

In 1980, Nantucket fishermen harvested a peak of 117,000 bushels. When Riley arrived in 2010, the scallop haul had declined to 7000 bushels, a nearly 95% drop. To change that, the island overhauled the waste-water management facility and increased regulations on lawn treatments. With Riley on board, Nantucket’s Town Meeting approved a multi-million-dollar upgrade to the hatchery.

“We said, let's get our cook the best ingredients and let her make, you know, make something great,” said Jeff Carlson, director of the Nantucket Natural Resources Department, of the voters' decision.

The hatchery now typically releases between 100 and 200 million scallop larvae into the ocean each year. This year, they also produced about 300,000 juvenile scallops. Not all of them will survive, but Riley expects fishermen will pull in upwards of 5,000 bushels of scallops this year, and Riley hopes that amount will increase in the near future to anywhere from 10,000-12,000 bushels.

“I feel like I'm held accountable by the fishery,” said Riley. “I definitely feel a certain amount of pressure to do my best and achieve goals and make things better every year.”

One of the hurdles Riley faces is, ironically, the fishermen themselves, according to Josh Eldridge.

Eldridge is a fifth generation Nantucketer who used to go out with his grandfather and father to fish for bay scallops. At 47, he is one of the younger members of the commercial fishery, and perhaps one of the few fishermen who appreciates what Riley is trying to do. Eldridge said that some of his fellow fishermen — many of whom are his father’s age — are skeptical of bay scallops grown in a lab.

What they don't get, he said, is that “the harbor could not sustain itself with its current condition and without the hatchery to augment the naturally occurring phenomenon. More than likely the industry would have crashed by now.”

Eldridge said it’s possible the scallop industry in Nantucket is living on borrowed time. If there isn’t a demonstrable increase in the scallop stock soon, he said, it won't be long before there aren't enough fishermen left to harvest what Riley might eventually produce. The five-month commercial scalloping season begins every November, and is a hard, laborious job during the coldest months. It requires investment in equipment and training, and it’s no longer the only source of income in the off-season when the summer tourists leave.

Steve Tettelbach, the Shellfish Ecologist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Program, has spent forty years studying bay scallops in Peconic Bay, Long Island, a spot that provides a cautionary tale. After years of work to restore their bay scallop fishery, there was a massive and mysterious die off in the past two seasons. Tettelbach believes he and others will be able to bring it back, but there’s no guarantee.

Tettelbach said Nantucket, and what Riley and her crew are doing, is crucial for bay scallop fisheries everywhere.

“It’s like the last bastion of bay scallop populations in the United States,” said Tettelbach. “A friend of mine likes to talk about bay scallop populations as like lights blinking on and off. In Nantucket, I would say that that light has been on almost the entire time.”

Rachel Rock is a freelance multimedia reporter based in Boston, Massachusetts.