The tale of Peconic Bay shellfish has been one of trouble and woe since the brown tide all but wiped out the bay scallop in 1985, but this year all that could change.
Researchers are seeing record numbers of baby scallops in test nets throughout the Peconic bays, including at a prime site for scallop restoration near the causeway in Orient Harbor.
The Peconic Bay Scallop Restoration Project began seven years ago, not long after the last brown tide outbreak in 1995. Dr. Stephen Tettelbach of Long Island University runs the program with Chris Smith, senior educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program, at the extension’s Cedar Beach laboratory in Southold.
Their primary tool is a series of mesh containers that make up an artificial reef in Orient Harbor. The mesh provides a substrate for baby scallops to attach to and grow on. The containers perform a function not unlike that of the eelgrass beds, which served as a nursery for many marine species until the brown tide destroyed most beds by blocking out the sunlight so important to eelgrass survival.
The restoration project group’s theory was that, after the brown tide, there were so few scallops in the Peconic bays that they could not reproduce in significant numbers. Therefore, the researchers planted lab-grown scallops in the Orient beds in densities high enough to ensure that they could spawn successfully.
They chose Orient Harbor because it, along with Flanders Bay, had been one of the best pre-brown tide spawning grounds.
In addition to their restoration project in Orient Harbor, the scientists also collected scallop samples in the wild at 24 sites throughout the bays. In each of the project’s first two years, they had been lucky to collect 1,000 of the little scallops, known as spat. In their first sampling this June, they collected 44,000 in one round, an all-time record.
“It’s climbed almost parabolically,” Dr. Tettelbach said of the scallop population Monday as he drove from Cedar Beach to Orient Harbor to pick up this year’s second sample collection from a crew working on a boat in the harbor. “In the first years we did not see an increase in areas that were unplanted. Now that we’re seeing that increase, it’s given us a good indicator that what we are doing is contributing significantly to the comeback.”
Dr. Tettelbach said the group is also breeding scallops that have dark shells with white vertical lines, affectionately called “skunks,” which they plant at restoration sites along with more common scallops. Normally, about 2 percent of wild scallops are skunks, but since the effort to restock the bay with scallops, the research group is finding that up to 4 percent of scallops at sampling sites have the zebra stripes, offering further proof that their efforts have contributed to the resurgence of scallops in the bays.
Dr. Tettelbach is also heartened by news that the commercial scallop harvest is following the same growth curve as has been seen in the restoration project.
In the 11 years following the brown tide outbreak, commercial scallop catches totalled around 3,000 pounds per year, with most baymen giving up after failing to reach their quota just two or three days into the season.
But in the last three years, the commercial harvest has ticked steadily upward, paralleling the trend in the restoration project.
In 2009, the state Department of Conservation reported baymen landed 20,000 pounds of scallops. Dr. Tettelbach believes that as many as 100,000 pounds of scallops were commercially harvested in the Peconic bays in the 2010 season, though the DEC has not yet compiled the figures for last year. In comparison, before the brown tide, he said, baymen were harvesting about 300,000 pounds of scallops here each year.
“Guys were getting their limit into January this year,” he said of the scallop season, which begins November 1 and ends at the end of March. “We’re making great, great progress, but we’re still trying to get back to the good old days. We’re well on the way to there.”
And the news, said Dr. Tettelbach, just keeps getting better.
He said that many of his colleagues who study brown tide believe that it is highly unlikely that the blooms will recur.
“The environmental conditions in the bays right now are not conducive to brown tide blooms,” he said.
By mid-afternoon on Monday, Dr. Tettelbach and several graduate students had collected about half of the mesh bags from the day’s sampling run. He opened one bag as anxious students waited beside him for a session of counting scallops that could easily last well into the night.
The mesh bag was choked with baby bivalves, a dense cluster of tiny scallops between 1 and 10 millimeters in length, all of which needed to be counted and some of which would be measured for further research on the speed of the scallops’ growth.
“With early precincts reporting, it looks like it’s going to be another banner day,” Dr. Tettelbach said.