By Kathryn G. Menu
On Monday morning, Jon and Darlene Semlear were shucking through five bushels of bay scallops. They deftly separated the shells, removed the muscle to reveal white, slightly golden morsels of scallop meat, quickly — and carefully — cut the precious jewels from their shells and put them into a cool bowl.
Standing in their New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approved processing studio at their Pine Neck Avenue home in Noyac, the bayman and Southampton Town Trustee lamented the impact algae blooms and Hurricane Sandy had on what was expected to be a banner bay scallop year.
At the same time, Semlear noted the harvest, while mediocre, has proven nowhere near as devastating as originally feared, although there are still parts of the Peconic Estuary once teaming with juvenile scallops, now filled with empty, dead shells.
The bay scallop season, a celebrated event for most East End residents, began on November 5. However, facing a scallop die-off most believe was caused by algae blooms and hampered by Hurricane Sandy followed by a nor’easter a week later, it was only this week that the fall bay scallop truly began as the DEC reopened many of the waters in East Hampton and Southampton towns for shellfishing after almost a two-week ban.
Last Friday, shellfish closures throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties were partially listed by the DEC. The closures were mandated after coastal flooding and power outages blanketed Long Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The DEC originally implemented shellfish closures as the super storm made landfall, on Monday, October 29, with some areas being reopened on November 7, November 8 and November 14 based on results of water quality tests.
According to the DEC, as of last Friday, the harvest of shellfish, including bay scallops, was permitted in the Town of Southampton in certified shellfish lands in Sag Harbor, North Sea Harbor, Shinnecock Bay and Cold Spring Pond.
In the Town of East Hampton, Three Mile Harbor, Hog Creek, Napeague Harbor and Lake Montauk were also reopened as was shellfish lands in Shelter Island Sound lying north and east of Crab Creek Point.
However, according to the DEC, several areas remained closed to shellfishing through Wednesday, November 21 including all of Accabonac Harbor in East Hampton.
According to the DEC, the closures were implemented because the easterly winds, full moon and storm surge from Sandy caused significant coastal flooding, which inundated septic systems and wastewater treatment systems in low lying areas.
It was yet another hit for local fishermen and seafood shops after news quickly spread that the bay scallop harvest for 2012-2013 was not likely to be as fruitful as it was once believed to be. In late December, both baymen and scientists reported news of as a much as a 90 percent bay scallop die-off in the Peconics over the summer and early fall.
According to Semlear, while he has had some luck in the first week of the local harvest, the bay scallop outlook is nowhere near as strong as it was this spring. He believes unless municipalities begin to address wastewater treatment in a comprehensive way, the local bays will continue to be inundated with what was coined the “mahogany” tide this summer.
Semlear, who sells most of his bay scallops out of his Pine Neck home and has the rest carted off to Cor-J Seafood Corp in Hampton Bays, said on Monday the season had kicked off to a promising start.
“Fortunately we have had scallops that have survived in town waters like Cold Spring Pond where we were today,” said Semlear.
Since the season opened, Semlear has been scalloping from Flanders to Jamesport, in Cutchogue Harbor and Noyac Bay.
“There are some scallops,” he said. “It was going to be this historic season, with just a crazy amount of scallops. I cannot tell you how many juveniles we had last year that died off in the last six weeks.”
Semlear said while he cannot be sure, he will speculate it was red tide, an algae bloom of cochlodinium, or the mahogany tide created by a different algae bloom may be at the root of this issue.
“I think there is too much pressure on Long Island, too much going on, too many people and too much going into our groundwater,” said Semlear, plucking a fresh scallop from its shell. “Whether it’s fertilizer, the septic systems, prescription drugs, everything we dispose off goes down and into our groundwater and we are at a point now where the cup has runneth over.”
Semlear said he believes it will take a massive effort, on the part of the state, county and towns to address wastewater treatment on the East End to begin a process of healing in the waters. That effort is critical he said.
“There were places I was getting dredges full of dead shells,” he said. “I haven’t tried in Sag Harbor yet, but I heard in Shelter Island Sound and outside the breakwater near Mashomack [Preserve] its not great and there were not many juveniles there just this spring.”
Fortunately for the Semlear family, they were able to harvest to their limit during their first week out. For how long that will last, remains to be seen.