The first Monday in November is a date that gets every seafood lover’s mouth salivating.
It is opening day of bay scallop season.
These delicious morsels are only available during the winter months and the demand is always high for them. In the days leading up to the opener, scallopers ready their dredges, dig out their viewing boxes, and service their dive gear.
Historically, there was never a question about how successful the scallop season would be as it supported a yearly fishery in New York that was valued at between 2 and 4 million dollars. Those bountiful times changed in 1985 with the first appearance of the brown tide, a single celled algae that blooms to such densities that it causes the water to become coffee-colored. This bloom is fueled by excess nitrogen that enters our bays through manmade activities such as the use of fertilizers, outdated sewage treatment plants and home septic systems. The high concentration of individual algal cells causes the water to become so turbid that it blocks valuable sunlight from reaching the bay bottom. Plants such as eelgrass, which are vital to the survival of scallops, are unable to photosynthesize and die.
Following these first harmful algal blooms (HABs), researchers from Cornell Cooperative Extension and Long Island University worked diligently to restore the scallop populations of the Peconic Estuary. In 2005, they received funding to embark on one of the largest bay scallop restoration programs in the US. Since the program’s inception, bay scallop populations have been on the increase.
Although bay scallop numbers are on the rise, they still face many manmade problems that affect their year-to-year numbers. The brown tide, as well as many other types of HABs, are still prevalent throughout the bay. Heat waves also have a negative effect on their abundance. In fact, record water temperatures were recorded this past summer within the estuary. Knowing that there were several HAB’s and record warm temperatures in the Peconics this past summer, scallopers (including myself) were concerned about what the outcome of the 2016/2017 harvest would be.
Opening day had finally arrived! Me and three buddies, grabbed our dive gear and headed to our favorite spot on the east end of the North Fork. Last year this location yielded a great haul, as we each collected a bushel of yummy Peconic Gold in less than 40 minutes. Anxious to taste those sweet morsels again, we plunged into the chilly 50 degree waters and began the hunt. With just a few kicks of my fins, I picked up my first keeper scallop. This excitement was short lived as it was quite a few kicks more before I found the next one. After an hour of hunting, while all the time trying not to be run over by one of the 15 boats that were also dragging the same area, I only managed to collect 30 bay scallops. My friends were just as unsuccessful and between the four of us, we barely filled half a bushel. Reports coming in from local baymen and fish mongers confirmed what we saw on our dive. Scallops are scarce this season which is causing a panic among North Fork seafood lovers.
Craving a fresh scallop dinner, we decided to give it another try several days later. We headed to a different location on the North Fork, donned our gear and once again scoured the bay bottom for scallops. This location produced better results, with each of us filling approximately half a bushel in an hour’s time. One positive observation that we all noted not only on this dive, but the previous dive as well, was the abundance of young of the year scallops. While this will not put dinner on our plates today, it bodes well for next year’s harvest.
Although we could not find the numbers of bay scallops like we did last year, some fresh scallops are better than none. Hopefully the next generation of bay scallops will fare well over the winter and summer allowing us the opportunity to put some Peconic Gold on the dinner table next year.