Categorized | Our Town

Shucking Awe

Posted on 31 May 2013

By Richard Gambino

Last October 20th, I was on a 20-ft slow moving open boat with ten other adults, under the guidance of Peter Topping from the East Hampton Township Shellfish Hatchery. We tossed many handfuls of one year-old scallops, clams and oysters into areas of Napeague Bay. We enjoyed the sight of the bay’s clear, healthy water and its very beautiful, undeveloped shore dunes, and breathing fresh salt air. All of us laughed like kids with delight to be bringing new life to that wonderful place. Just weeks later, however, there were reports in newspapers saying very high percentages of scallops (in some areas upwards of 90 percent), and many clams and oysters in the Peconic Estuary had died.  The cause of this disaster was two-fold: one, the thirty-year old chronic problem of nitrogen compounds leaching into the waters from our lands, and two, extra amounts washed into the waters by the high-water surges caused at the end of October by Hurricane Sandy and the northeast storm shortly after Sandy.

You see, nitrogens cause certain  “red tide” and “brown tide” algae to grow like mad. These consume most of the oxygen in areas of water, causing shellfish — and finfish — to die quite fast, literally by suffocation. (Finfish sometimes can swim distances and get out of the “toxic algae zones,” unlike shellfish.)  Two major sources of the nitrogens are outdated septic systems, and lawn fertilizers. (To its credit, the Township of Southampton is considering paying people money to replace cesspools and tanks that date before 1981 with modern systems, paying 50-60 percent of the average cost of the replacements, which is some $5,000.)

Wondering what is the status of our shellfish today, this month I asked the Director of the E.H. Shellfish Enhancement Program, John “Barley” Dunne. He told me that unlike other areas of the Peconic Estuary, “Luckily East Hampton’s Township waters didn’t have that problem. Three Mile Harbor, for example, was pretty bountiful.” As for this spring, “The population should recover pretty nicely as long as we don’t get those algae blooms. There’s probably enough of a residual population to hopefully bring it back to where it was.” Mr. Dunne reminded me that this last winter of 2012-2013 was colder than that of the winter of 2011-2012, and colder water inhibits algae’s growth. In the warmer winter and spring of 2011-2012, “They bloomed about a month ahead of time and so wreaked that much more damage.”

But in addition to bay scallops being “generally more sensitive to water quality than clams and oysters, including the presence of algae blooms which kill them, they also rely on eel grass.” Scallops’ offspring bed down in eelgrass, unlike clams and oysters that can bed down in open areas of the bottom. After being spawned, scallops’ young larvae swim about for two to three weeks, then attach themselves inside dense eelgrass, safe from predators like crabs and snails. But algae blooms kill eelgrass too, and so scallops also perish from the lack of this feature of their habitat that is critical to them.  Further complicating matters, warm water over 800 F, found in shallow areas in very warm seasons, also kills eelgrass. And still further, while Mr. Dunne and his colleagues seed from 3 to 6 million oysters and six to 20 million clams per year, they can seed only a few hundred thousand scallops annually. Scallops are simply more “labor intensive.” One, “They need to be underwater at all times,” and, two “They cannot be put together too densely,” in both characteristics unlike clams and oysters.”

The relationships between humans and the rest of nature can be as complicated as they are real.


RICHARD GAMBINO wishes both humans and our living environment on the East End a healthy and good summer.

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