Scallop Season ‘Sucks’

Baymen bemoan a harvest ‘not worth going for’
Habitat loss and nitrogen loading are among the causes of an especially weak scallop harvest this year. Jon. M. Diat

A Nov. 7 prediction by Barley Dunne, the executive director of the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery, as to this year’s bay scallop harvest in town waters has proven accurate. 

“It’s not looking that great again, unfortunately,” he said, four days before the Nov. 11 date on which the town trustees had voted to open town waters to the harvesting of the local delicacy. “Maybe a little bit lighter than last year.” 

In hindsight, the latter remark was an understatement, according to baymen and retailers. Apart from a mildly encouraging take in the first days, bay scallops are scarce this year, to the point that some of those who make their living on the water have decided that seeking them out is not worth the effort.

“It sucks,” was Stuart Heath’s assessment on Monday. “There’s a handful at Sammy’s Beach,” the Montauk bayman said, that he believed to be among those grown by the hatchery, which has seeded waters with scallops, oysters, and clams since its establishment in the wake of algal blooms that decimated shellfish populations in the 1980s. 

The scallops Mr. Heath has harvested have largely fallen short of the five bushels commercial permittees are allowed to take per day. Initially, the harvest was “a little better than last year,” he said. “There are a few spread out all over, but nobody’s getting their limit now. They might have been getting it in the first week.” 

Nat Miller of Springs said on Monday that he hasn’t looked for scallops because “there are none.” While there are “a few in Three Mile Harbor,” there are “not enough worth going for.” 

Early Tuesday afternoon, Alex Fausto, the manager of the Seafood Shop in Wainscott, reported just two bushels received by the retailer that day. “From the first day it wasn’t that great,” he said. “The third day, I think they did the limit in a few hours,” he said of harvesters. “Since then it’s been very slow.” Bay scallops were selling for $29.95 per pound at the Seafood Shop on Tuesday, a figure that has risen as the supply has diminished. 

“They say on the North Fork they’re doing well,” Mr. Fausto said. “But in this area?” He shook his head. “Worse than last year, definitely. Our guys say it’s not worth it to go, because it doesn’t pay.” 

Mr. Dunne pointed to habitat loss, saying on Nov. 7 that “the stuff we seeded seems to have done quite well, but due to lack of habitat any progeny they’ve produced has not been able to survive.” Eelgrass, which provides critical habitat for juvenile marine life, has been decimated in local waters, with abundant nitrogen loading a suspected culprit. “It really comes down to habitat, or lack thereof,” he said. “That’s really what scallops are relying on.” 

New York State had announced Nov. 5 as the opening of scallop season in state waters. The trustees typically open waters a week later to allow additional time for scallops to spawn. The season will end on March 31. 

The consensus last year was a modest rebound in the bay scallop population, New York’s official state shellfish, after two consecutive years of disappointment. In recent years, the population has been impacted by factors including blooms of cochlodinium, or rust tide. While not injurious to humans, rust tide can be harmful to shellfish and finfish. Predation by marine life including crabs and conch has also hurt, and is worsened by the sparse habitat to which Mr. Dunne referred. Warmer water temperatures may also be to blame. 

Mr. Miller reported “a bunch of bugs,” or juvenile scallops, in Three Mile Harbor. “Maybe next year there’s a chance,” he said. But this week, “Not much going on.”