Environment

One day into the new season, and there are few if any adult scallops

Normally on the opening day of scallop season, Braun Seafood in Cut­ch­ogue would be bustling with workers opening bushel after bushel of scallops. And the ripple effect of that bounty would quickly spread far and wide, to the 700 restaurants and seafood markets Braun’s supplies and beyond.

The scallop season in state waters opened Monday, and to Ken Homan, Braun’s owner, Charlie Manwaring at Southold Fish Market and Mary Bess Philips at Alice’s Fish Market in Greenport, the bounty that has made the Peconic Bay’s scallops the most famous in the world is simply not there.

“We had nothing yesterday,” Mr. Homan said Tuesday morning. “There are no scallops. Some baymen went out and came back, but they are not there. This hurts the East End very hard. It takes income away from a lot of people. This company was born out of Peconic Bay scallops. That’s what my dad did when he first started out.”

“This will hit so many people, and all at a time when restaurants are really hurting from the pandemic.”

Charlie Manwaring

Mr. Manwaring said, “This is an economic disaster, with a deep ripple effect throughout the local economy. We had two days of strong wind and so many guys did not go out. But those who have been out say it’s very bad. Lots of guys didn’t find anything. 

“Scallops brings people out who buy gas, go to stores, come to our market and go to restaurants,” he said. “It’s not just the [scallop] openers who get hurt; it’s so much more than that. This will hit so many people, and all at a time when restaurants are really hurting from the pandemic.”

Surveying the Monday opener from her shop in Greenport, Ms. Phillips said, “Some people who went out barely found enough for them to eat. But most [baymen] are not going out. With the costs that go with it, it’s not worth it. I think the scallop season will be nonexistent this year.”

Like the baymen, the part time scallopers who always went out on opening day for the extra income, and the seafood markets that sell to the public, scallops were the cash crop that got them through the fall and into winter. “We counted on bay scallops to get us through when the tourist season began to die down in the fall,” Ms. Phillips said. 

Why is this year’s season for scallops so bleak? To Ms. Phillips and several experts, a likely suspect is bay temperatures, which rose into the high eighties over the summer, with high temperatures reaching to the bay floor.

The grim scallop situation was the same on Shelter Island. As the sun rose Monday, Shelter Island’s Congdon Creek town landing was deserted — not what you would expect on opening day. 

One of the few remaining Shelter Island commercial fishermen, John Kotula, stood in his boat, Nancy’s Devotion, trying to decide whether to check his conch pots, or go home. Going for scallops was not an option, even if the wind hadn’t been blowing hard. As he knew all too well, there weren’t any to be had.

For decades, bay scallops have been a source of joy and income to East End fishermen. Tiny and sweet, their season spans the coldest months when there’s not much else to fish for. Even after most of the adult bay scallops died last year, there was a glimmer of hope for a bumper crop of juvenile scallops. 

That optimism led Keith and Louise Clark of Shelter Island to renew the license for the scallop-processing facility in their basement, an act that was equal parts stubbornness and ungrounded optimism. 

“We registered our shop and got our licenses all squared away, but got nothing to deal with,” said Mr. Clark.

The death of many adult bay scallops in 2019 was shocking, but hope eroded in August of this year when researchers and baymen documented a second mass mortality. According to surveys conducted by Cornell Cooperative Extension researcher Stephen Tettelbach at three sites with the highest density of adult scallops in the spring of 2020, close to 100% of the adult scallops were dead by the end of August.

An initial study, conducted by Bassem Allam of the Marine Animal Disease Laboratory at Stony Brook University, reported in January 2020 that 100% of the scallop samples gathered in Peconic Bay carried a parasite that could kill the scallop under stressful environmental conditions. Parasites were also found in bay scallops taken in the waters around Nantucket, where the water is cooler, and where no mass die-offs have occurred. 

Cornell Cooperative Extension got some federal funds through the Paycheck Protection Program and hired baymen to conduct dredge surveys to monitor the scallop population over the summer. 

For Ms. Phillips and her husband, Mark, a commercial fisherman who seems to work around the clock all year long, their family-owned seafood business on the creek in Greenport diversified long ago to help them weather situations like this year’s scallop crop.

“That diversification has helped us,” Ms. Phillips said. “But this lack of scallops will really hurt so many people who each year depend on them for their income.”