George Merritt, Wayne Fenelon and Jim Bennett shuck scallops at Dan Lester’s facility in Amagansett on Monday. Photo by Michael Heller.
By Stephen J. Kotz
East End baymen and diners alike have grown accustomed to scallop seasons that begin with a bang but end with whimper in a matter of days. But this year has been different, with an abundance of the tasty shellfish being harvested from the bays and finding their way to local tables.
“So far, they have been pretty plentiful,” said Charlotte Sasso, an owner of Stuart’s Seafood Shop in Amagansett. “They are reasonably priced for the customer and the fishermen are getting rewarded for their hard work.”
The scallop season opened November 3 in New York State waters and on November 10 in town waters.
“A week after town waters opened, we’re still receiving 200 to 300 pounds a day,” Ms. Sasso said this week, adding that she was optimistic there would still be scallops available well into winter this year.
Danny Lester, 41, an Amagansett bayman who has spent a lifetime on the water, concurred. Even with increased competition from part-time commercial baymen and recreational scallopers, “who have come out of the woodwork because it’s a good season, there is stuff all over the place,” he said. “You can still go out, put your time in and get your limit.”
Mr. Lester said he was confident that he and his brother, Paul Lester, with whom he works most days, would be scalloping well into January. “You might not get your limit, but if you get six or seven bags, it’s still a good day’s pay,” he said. The season closes on March 31, although in practice it has not lasted that long in decades.
Commercial license holders can take five bushels a day, while recreational permit holders are limited to a single bushel.
Make no mistake about it, even when they are plentiful, scallops are not cheap. They have been selling for $20 to $23 per pound in East End seafood shops early in the season, but as the supply begins to decline, Mr. Lester said he expects prices to rise.
“The price is less than they started out at last year when they were about $30 a pound and averaged $25 to $30 during the course of their availability,” added Ms. Sasso.
A year ago, early prospects for a successful scallop season were dashed when rust tide spread through East End waters in the summer, killing all manner of shellfish. Mr. Lester said believed “the cold winter last year helped, but we did not have the rust tide like they had the last couple of years.”
He said there were a large number of bug scallops, which, barring a return of harmful tides next year, bode well for another successful season.
Since 2008, East Hampton Town’s Shellfish Hatchery has been growing scallops and seeding them into sanctuaries in Napeague and Three Mile harbors, according to John “Barley” Dunne, the hatchery’s director, who said “some credit has to be given to restoring the shellfish beds” for the successful season in East Hampton. “Next year, we are hoping to expand into other harbors in town and that this bounty will occur in those harbors as well.”
But he added the revival may be more cyclical in nature. “There’s been a good scallop harvest on other parts of the island,” he said, adding baymen were having good luck in Southampton Town and even as far north as Martha’s Vineyard.
Like Mr. Lester, he agreed the lack of harmful algae blooms also helped this year’s set thrive. “The one we worry about is the rust tide,” he said. Although the rust tide affected waters in parts of Southampton last summer, East Hampton was largely been sparred.
Kevin McAllister, the director of Defend H2O, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting water quality, said he was skeptical that this season’s rebound will last.
“We haven’t remotely turned the corner. We’ve got big challenges ahead of us,” he said of water quality issues. “As far as a modestly good scallop season, let’s hold the applause here and see if five or six years follow or if this is just a blip.”
If the East End wants to restore its fisheries, it will have to do much to reverse long-term trends in water quality degradation, according to Mr. McAllister.
Mr. Lester sounded a note of caution of another sort. He pointed out that commercial baymen are required to obtain separate permits for their shucking sheds that must have running water, refrigeration and be inspected by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to make sure the shellfish are not tainted.
“There are some people who are selling scallops for cheap,” he said. “But if you are buying them you might be getting them from someone who is opening them on the tailgate of his truck.”