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Top Stories 2019: Searching for answers after scallop die-off

On the first Monday in November, the bays and creeks on the North Fork are usually teeming with small boats and baymen out to harvest the great delicacy of our waters — the Peconic Bay scallop.

Except this year.

Experienced fishermen and baymen had sensed days before the Nov. 4 opening of scallop season that something was very wrong. Where were the scallops? By mid-morning on opening day, word had spread among baymen, seafood businesses and chefs eager to prepare meals that the bays and creeks were largely empty of scallops. There had been a massive die-off few saw coming — and no one could adequately explain why.

“It’s the worst opening day in at least 15 years,” said Keith Reda, general manager at Braun Seafood Company in Cutchogue.

Normally, by the middle of the afternoon on a typical opening day, a half-dozen people would be gathered around a big table at Braun opening scallops and preparing them for the market. On this opening day, hardly anyone was needed to open scallops.

In some areas, experts said, the die-off was nearly 100 percent. Some blamed high water temperatures and low dissolved oxygen levels. Others said they simply didn’t know what had happened. Consider this: In 2017 and 2018, scallop landings were worth something like $1.5 million to commercial fishermen alone. Factor in all the economic mulipliers — from markets to restaurants — and that number skyrockets.

In decades past, Peconic Bay scallops were flown all over the country, to restaurants big and small. This fall, chefs were looking for something else to prepare.