For generations, bay scallops have been the jewels of the Peconic Bay fishery, coveted around the world for their sweetness. In years when scallops were abundant in the bays, fleets of planes would leave eastern Long Island loaded with drums filled with them, for restaurants and markets up and down the East Coast.
Each fall when scallop season opened baymen would count on the crop to augment their businesses, knowing there was a market for what they raked from the bay bottom and brought to markets such as Braun Seafood in Cutchogue. There, scores of openers stood at long tables, removing scallops from their shells for sale to restaurants and an eagerly waiting public..
Hundreds of non-commercial fishermen from Riverhead to Orient would launch their boats to get their rakes in the water and bring in scallops. Some seasons, when the crop was plentiful, places like the bay south of Narrow River in Orient were filled with such boats on opening day.
In the 1960s, scallops brought to Braun were then sold to iconic New York City restaurants like Sardi’s, the 21 Club and Luchow’s. Everyone who loved bay scallops knew the best ones came from eastern Long Island.
After years of up and down harvests, 2021 is shaping up as another potentially poor year for bay scallops. As we report in The Suffolk Times, Peconic Bay is one of four fisheries to be declared a disaster after what’s been characterized as a “near unprecedented” die-off in 2019 and a very poor crop in 2020.
The June 29 announcement by the U.S. Department of Commerce makes the fisheries eligible for disaster assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the winter of 2020, researchers announced they’d discovered a parasite in some adult bay scallops that may have contributed to the massive die-off the year before. State officials said at the time that this parasite had never before been seen in New York waters.
Bay scallops have been a multi-million-dollar crop for the fishing industry, from the baymen or -women who work hard to harvest them in , to the markets that sell them and the restaurants that feature them prominently on menus. The loss of this cash crop, such an iconic symbol of our bays, hurts many people and calls into question the present and future health of our bays, as changes in water temperatures and steady sea rise continue.
For perspective, consider this: After the huge crops of previous years, a die-off in 1985 caused by algae blooms brought the scallop almost to extinction. And by 1996, the entire scallop harvest for New York State was just nine bushels.
Last fall, some baymen who went out on opening day found no scallops at all. 2020 will go down as one of the largest scallop die-offs in the bay’s storied history.
Bay scallop landings in 2017 and 2018 exceeded 100,000 pounds each year, with an estimated value of nearly $2 million. The 2019 die-off saw 90% of adult scallops lost, and last year was a near total loss.
When the 2021 season opens in state and local waters, we will once again hold our breath to see if there will be enough scallops to bring to market. And though that seems very unlikely right now, we earnestly hope for a turnaround.