Another Grim Opening Of Scallop Season After Third Massive Summer Die-Off

A parasite called “a significant threat” to the Peconic Bay scallop fishery may have been a factor in the near total collapse of the scallop population last year. EXPRESS FILE

Predictions that the opening of the 2021 bay scallop season would be met with a paucity of the cherished shellfish proved painfully accurate this week as the few baymen and recreational harvesters who ventured out on Monday found essentially nothing to harvest.

“I spent two hours yesterday — I got seven,” Ed Warner Jr., a commercial bayman and member of the Southampton Town Trustees, said on Tuesday. “My wife had them for an appetizer.”

Many other baymen didn’t even bother with the obligatory effort.

East Hampton fisherman Nat Miller said that the small number of scallops left alive after the third straight summer die-off was “not worth the effort.”

Consumers who will bound into seafood shops expecting to find metal trays brimming with the golden, briney morsels of meat pried from within a scallops shell will be met with empty metal.

“We have not had a single scallop come into the store yet,” said Chris Dubritz at Clamman Seafood in Southampton Village.

Michael Hanrahan of Lighthouse Seafood in Hampton Bays likewise said that they had not had any baymen come looking to sell scallops.

There are a few faint glimmers of hope: East Hampton Town waters don’t open until next week, where some scallops could be hiding in deeper cooler waters, and much of Southampton Town waters, including Shinnecock Bay, were closed to shellfish harvesting the early part of this week because of concerns about elevated bacterial levels following last week’s heavy rainfalls.

But those possible hidden supplies would be a tiny drop in the bucket relative to the Peconic’s dearth, even if they revealed an unexpected bounty.

Hampton Bays bayman Willy Caldwell said he thinks the breadth of the die-off this year is even greater than the last couple years, when scientists have estimated that upwards of 90 percent of the scallops died.

The bay scallops that grow in the tidal waters between the twin forks of the East End have long been one of the most sought after delicacies in the seafood world. For decades, when they carpeted the bay bottoms, they supported an entire industry of hundreds of full-time commercial fishermen who earned their livings harvesting fish and shellfish from local bays. When populations collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the emergence of the first of what is now several variations of harmful algae blooms, that industry largely went with it.

But over the ensuing two decades, scientists and government officials mounted a hatchery and seeding effort to help bolster the decimated wild stock. A roller coaster of mixed results over the years had started to show signs of stabilizing in the last decade and harvests had expanded.

Going into the summer of 2019, baymen and scientific researchers had seen one of the largest “sets” of juvenile scallops in decades in the Peconic Bay Estuary and hopes were soaring for a robust harvest that harkened to the days before the “brown tide” of 1985.

But early that fall, when surveyors from the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s scallop restoration program dove to underwater survey sights that had been brimming with growing scallops before the summer, found a wasteland littered with the gaping shells of bivalves that had died where they sat.

The die-off was blamed on a vicious combination of factors, primarily a parasite that appeared to have infected the majority of adult scallops, and warming water temperatures in the interior of the Peconic Estuary. Those two factors, researchers said, appeared to have weakened the scallops so much that when they went through the taxing stress of the annual early summer spawn, the adults simply could not recover.

The lone solace in the deadly circumstances was that the scallops spawned, and the huge numbers from 2019 had produced another gargantuan set for 2020. And when the die-off occurred again 2020, the grim wreckage of the once promising stock again left behind another generation for 2021 and it one for 2022.

But the cycle, seemingly metastasized into the system, just waiting for something to interrupt it, has become defeating for those holding out hope.

“There’s plenty of bugs — lots of juveniles to just die next year again,” Warner said with painful resignation. “It’s crushing. We have worked so hard to re-establish these scallops and make a viable fishery again, which I thought we had finally achieved about five years ago. But Mother Nature has her own ideas.”