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The Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program in Southold serves as a nursery for shellfish. Credit: David Benthal

For most of the past three decades opening day for bay scallop fishing in the Peconic Bays has been a joyous day for baymen, and for people who love to eat the tiny sweet gems. Then came opening day 2019 and 2020, when the first Monday in November became a day to mourn, not celebrate. Two years in which most of the adult scallops died before they could be caught was a disaster for the baymen who depended on the winter income and to eaters who accept no substitute for the briny gumdrop that is a wildcaught scallop from the Peconic Bays.

Bay scallops have up to a two-year lifespan that winds down a few months after they reproduce in the summer. The scallops that are harvested from our local waters from November through March are adults who have already spawned, and will die of old age if the fishermen don’t get them first. The question that scientists, environmentalists and baymen are grappling with is this: What causes most of them to die at the same time, months earlier than expected, and what can be done to prevent this going forward?

Two years of research and ongoing data collection have sharpened the focus on what caused the mortality of adult scallops, and what can be done to improve their odds of survival in the future. Several factors including disease, predators and environmental conditions are thought to have caused the die-off. And although a microscopic parasite is at the head of the list of culprits, all of the possible explanations come back to the increasing water temperatures that bring new predators into New York waters — and make scallops less resilient to disease.

Matt Ketcham is best known as the farmer of Peconic Gold Oysters, but he looks forward to wild-caught bay scallop season as a welcome supplement to his income. In mid-August he thought the signs were good. “I think we are going to get scallops this year.

Scott Hughes, Stephen Tettelbach and Brad Peterson are overseeing the effort to monitor and reseed the bay scallop population. Credit: David Benthal

We have record numbers of young scallops, and so far, the water has been a little cooler. Last year, the water was 87 degrees up in the bay, that’s way too hot. I think the general combination of warm water, low oxygen levels and a spawn during hot water time stressed them.”

Stephen Tettelbach, who conducts field work to monitor the scallop population for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, saw no signs of another die-off of adult scallops in early August. But by the end of the month he was starting to document deaths of adult scallops. At the same time, he also documented a large number of spat (baby scallops) — about twice what he’s seen in 17 years of counting. That’s a good sign for next year.

The coccidian parasite detected last year was present in most bay scallops, but seemed to cause death only in adults. Bassem Allam, the researcher at Stony Brook University who identified the parasites, said he is still seeing them in 2021, although as of early summer they were at lower levels. He’s also seeing a relationship between the presence of the parasite and the water temperature rising in the summer. “I’m afraid there could be significant mortality,” he said. “Scallops that are more stressed by high temperatures are more likely to die from parasitic disease,” he said. “Maybe less heat this year will result in less mortality.”

Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, was philosophical about the chances of a good scallop harvest. “There are scallops out there, but no more than last year or the year before, and those all died before they could be harvested in early November. There is no reason to think that the same thing won’t happen again. Baymen will simply move on to the next thing.” For now, that means good money from striped bass, which are not as plentiful as they once were, but are a little easier to catch this year.

Credit: David Benthal

What’s next is what gets Orient-based chef and cookbook author Will Horowitz excited. “My grandfather was a bayman and went for lobsters,” he said. “I wouldn’t say lobsters were plentiful then, but they were there.” Although lobsters are no longer common in these parts, Horowitz is seeing fishers bring in large numbers of blue crabs — another creature long associated with southerly waters that is moving north.

He’s also encouraged by the prospects for kelp, a farmed sea vegetable that is a staple in Japanese cooking and is sustainably grown in our waters. “We know one thing. We know for sure based on all these ocean trends that it’s not going to get better. We’ve been following these ocean trends for a hundred years,” he said. “It’s been sad to see it all go, but the silver lining is blue crab.”

The future of the commercial bay scallop fishery in a time of human-generated climate change is human management. Using selective breeding, researchers hope to grow bay scallop spat that is better adapted to the changing climate, and that will survive in the wild long enough to be caught by baymen, a process called reseeding. All of the scallop spat used for reseeding is produced at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Southold, supported by research paid for by taxpayers. “It’s public aquaculture,” said Tettelbach, who oversees the effort. “The animals are harvested by the public.”

The temperature-tolerant scallops they hope to develop will likely produce offspring better able to take the heat. “Whatever larvae is produced from those, theoretically will have the genetic signature,” said Tettelbach. “I think that really does hold a lot of promise down the road.”