Governor Cuomo Seeks Federal Assistance With Scallop Die-Off

Over 100,000 pounds of scallops are harvested each year from the Peconic Bay estuary. GREG WEHNER

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pleading with federal officials to declare the recent scallop die-off in Peconic Bay waters a commercial fishery disaster.

If his efforts are successful, federal funds may flow into the area to help replenish scallop populations and provide financial relief to local baymen who target the ridged shellfish as a major source of revenue.

In a letter dated December 6, 2019, Mr. Cuomo told U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. — who owns a house in Southampton Village — about the catastrophe that struck the waters of Peconic and Gardiners bays on the East End of Long Island, and requested that he determine that it was a commercial fishery failure in the bays.

“During the summer of 2019, there was a catastrophic die-off of adult bay scallops in Peconic Bay, with estimates of more than 90 percent mortality of adult scallops throughout the Peconics and some areas documented with 100 percent mortality,” Mr. Cuomo said in his letter. “Although the exact cause of the die-off is unknown, scientists theorize that the mortality event was due to physiological stress during bay scallop spawning, which was exacerbated by high summer water temperatures — mid-80s — and low dissolved oxygen. Juvenile … scallops were not impacted by the die-off.”

The die-off was discovered just weeks before the opening of bay scallop season on November 4, though the issue really came to light that day when baymen returned to shore with very light harvests.

During a symposium on the matter in December, local scientists like Dr. Christopher Gobler of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences offered a multitude of possible explanations for the shellfish kill. Factors like high summer water temperatures could have made the scallops prone to diseases, they said, though they also noted the sudden arrival of cownose rays, predators which fed on the scallops, in local bays for the first time.

Another theory was that there was not enough nitrogen in the bays to support the growth of microscopic plant matter, which scallops feed on.

In 1985, a toxic brown tide decimated the scallop population. Prior to the event, an average of 300,000 pounds of scallops were pulled from the bottoms of the Peconic Bay estuary, valued at more than $1 million, according to Mr. Cuomo’s letter.

Over time, the population of scallops has increased, and while the pounds of scallops harvested has not reached 300,000 pounds, in both 2017 and 2018, baymen exceeded 108,000 pounds, with a value of $1.6 million.

“We estimate that hundreds of baymen participate in the bay scallop fishery, which provides a significant portion of their income during the seasonal period from November through March,” he said. “The current catastrophic loss of adult scallops is a devastating fishery disaster for both commercial baymen and local seafood dealers and markets that depend on this resource and increased revenues annually.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said he “strongly supports” Mr. Cuomo’s efforts to seek assistance from the federal government.

Along with seeking federal help, Mr. Thiele said in a press release that the governor directed the State Department of Environmental Conservation to work with Stony Brook University and Cornell Cooperative Extension to research and identify the factors that led to the scallop die-off.

“The catastrophic die-off of adult bay scallops that occurred this year is crippling to the commercial fishing community, and to all related East End industries and businesses,” Mr. Thiele said. “This is yet another example of the extreme and adverse impacts of climate change across our region. I agree that swift, cooperative action must be taken to compensate harvesters and support restoration efforts, and I am pleased to see Governor Cuomo calling for federal intervention and relief for this nationally acclaimed industry.”