By Annette Hinkle
This year’s scallop season opened November 4, and if you ask a local bayman or recreational scalloper how the season is going so far, chances are you’ll here a little bit of good news and an awful lot of bad news.
The good news? A lot of mature scallops have been showing up in the dredges.
The bad news? The majority of them are dead.
“The season is not as good as it was last year,” noted Sag Harbor’s Al “Big Time” Daniels. “We didn’t expect too much and it was hyped up in the papers to be great, and it just wasn’t that great.”
Daniel’s notes he’s getting two or three bushels of scallops on a good day, but adds that he has to scrounge for them.
“Last year I was getting that many into January,” he says. “This year, most were shot in the first two weeks.”
Sag Harbor’s David Schroeder has experienced much the same thing out on the water.
“Last year and the year before were much better by far,” says Schroeder. “What we’re seeing now is a lot of empty shells. They’re dead.”
Ed Warner Jr., a Southampton Trustee and bayman who spends a lot of time working Shinnecock Bay has also pulled up many dead scallops this season. He attributes the die off to rust tide, an algal bloom which appeared in local waters in August and continued through October.
“Six weeks before the season opens, guys look around to see how many juveniles there are. They saw a lot of juveniles,” says Warner. “But by opening day, many of them were dead.”
“Sag Harbor took a big hit,” adds Warner. “When I was scalloping there in April to transplant scallops from state to town waters, with the blessing of the DEC, I had 30 bushels very quickly. But on opening day, out of 100, maybe there were eight or 10 that were alive.”
Warner believes the scallops had died shortly before being harvested.
“They were white inside, like someone had just shucked them,” he says.
Scallops live 18 months and in order to be harvested, must be two and a quarter inches in size and have a growth ring. Because they are nearing the end of their life cycle, many baymen feel moving the start of scalloping season earlier in the fall would result in greater yields.
“Maybe it would be prudent to move opening day to the first Monday in October, but I’m not sure that would work,” says Warner.
That’s because the main culprit, rust tide, has such a detrimental effect on the scallops.
Though not toxic to humans, rust tide harms finfish and shellfish, which are already depleted in local waters due to habitat loss and other environmental factors. This year, the tide first showed up in Shinnecock Bay and western Peconic Bay, but it soon spread east.
“It looks like someone cut off a cow’s head and dumped it in the bay — it’s that bad,” says Warner. “Probably the most defined spot was Long Beach in Noyac Bay. You could drive by in a car and see it.”
“It was the same in Shinnecock and in western Peconic Bay,” he adds. “You have nice blue water then this nasty reddish colored water. It’s like clouds in the sky, there are little clusters of it. I’ve seen it for six or seven years in Shinnecock and it seems to be getting worse.”
Warner notes that scallops and razor clams are particular vulnerable to rust tide.
“Those are the two organisms in the bay environment that have the highest metabolism and pump a lot of water,” explains Warner. “During brown tide outbreaks, clams will clam up and go to the bottom and go dormant. A similar thing happens with oysters in Mecox Bay — when the salinity drops they can go dormant for up to a month.”
“But a steamer, razor clam or a scallop, if you’ve ever watched them in a tank, they are constantly filtering and pumping and their filter will clog,” he says. “Now you have the scallops almost make it to harvest, then die.”
“It’s very frustrating,” adds Warner. “Think of it this way — you grow Christmas trees all year long and have a fire the week before Christmas and they all burn down.”
And the rust tide is just the latest problematic algal bloom threatening local shellfish populations.
“We had brown tide for so many years and still do in western Suffolk. It was really painful suffering through that,” says Warner who has come to understand that he needs to diversify if he is to preserve his way of life.
“My son and I purchased a dragger — we’re dividing our time between dragging the ocean, scalloping the bays when I have time and weather permits, and going for skimmer clams and other clams,” he says. “I don’t count on one thing, but many things to make a living. Scalloping used to be a third of my income, but things change and you have to be versatile.”
As bad as it is on the South Fork this year, all signs would indicate scalloping is no better on the North Fork.
“I’m seeing boats from Southold and Greenport here, so they’re burning fuel to get over here,” notes Schroeder who find the situation to be a bit better in waters further east. “Everyone knows they’re over by Ely Brook. That’s where everyone’s going.”
Schroeder notes that years ago, scalloping season on the East End opened on the first Monday in September and believes that if that were the case again, yields would be far greater.
“When I went scouting in the beginning of October, I would have told you I could go out with my partner and get 20 bushels a day — 10 bushels each, which is the commercial limit. But they all died,” he says. “In my opinion, the die off has happened from mid October until today. I would hope they’d open the season sooner, but it’s up to the DEC. It would be great for the local baymen.”
Still, based on the numbers of juvenile scallops Schroeder has come across, next year’s season could be a banner year.
“In Al Daniel’s article, he’s 100 percent right,” adds Schroeder. “There are so many bugs out there, if they survive next year is going to be phenomenal …if they survive.”
And though this scallop season is nothing to write home about, Schroeder is not ready to give up quite yet.
“I’m going to go until I can’t get anymore,” said Schroeder. “But if I go out for four or five hours and only get two bushels, I’ll winterize the boat.”