For more than 30 years, Tim Sweat has spent the early morning hours of winter on Peconic Bay. By noon on most days, he would collect thousands of pounds of scallops — enough to cover the daily cost of maintaining his boat, plus put aside some extra money for the holidays.
But for the last four years, as bay scallops continue to die off at an alarming rate, he’s finished the season with little to show for his efforts.
“I’ve spent most of my life out here on the water; fishing is my whole life. But the future is not looking very promising for the smaller boats like me,” Sweat said. “We’re struggling to make a living out here, things keep dying off.”
Tim Sweat has spent most of his life on the water. He believes that the North Fork’s rapidly growing population is playing a part in the decline of Peconic Bay scallops. (Photo credit: David Benthal)
Peconic Bay scallops were, and still are, integral to the area’s economy and culture. For decades, they were known as “the jewels of the Eastern Long Island fishing industry,” and their distinctive shells even became the official New York State seashell in 1988. Visitors traveled from around the globe to sample the local winter delicacy and fishermen, like Sweat, made the bulk of the season’s income from scalloping.
“I may be biased but there’s nothing that tastes quite like a scallop from the bay. They’re so much sweeter and more tender,” said Ken Homan, owner of Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue, one of the largest and oldest seafood distributors on Long Island. “Back in the day, we would freeze scallops by the thousands and send them to Massachusetts and California.”
In 1985, the first wave of brown tides ravaged Long Island’s East End. The algae bloom devastated the fishing industry and the brief, two-year lifespan of scallops put the species at serious risk. The shellfish population was driven to near extinction, even as the brown tides ceased in the mid-1990s.
“Scallops are like the canary in the coal mine,” said Harrison Tobi, an aquaculture specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program. “They’re extremely sensitive and are often a good indicator of overall ecosystem health.”
In 2005, CCE — in collaboration with Long Island University — began an initiative to bring the staple shellfish back to its former glory. The Bay Scallop Restoration Program utilizes science-based breeding asn restoration techniques to jump-start scallop population growth in Peconic Bay.
Each season for more than 15 years, the program planted around 700,000 hatchery-reared scallops in order to rebuild the commercial fishing economy. CCE did not modify the genetics of the scallops, but rather utilized a system called “restorative breeding,” in other words, selecting and breeding scallops within the hatcheries, then releasing them into the bay. By 2018, bay scallops contributed more than $60 million to the regional economy.
Ken Homan recalls the days when he would freeze scallops by the thousands and send them to Massachusetts and California. (Photo Credit: David Benthal)
“Our restoration program was able to nearly completely restore the scallop population,” said Tobi. “Baymen went from producing less than 20,000 pounds of scallop meat per season in 2004 to over 100,000 pounds in 2018.”
However, a sudden and massive die-off of Peconic Bay scallops brought the industry to almost a complete halt in 2019. And for the past four years, there have been few indications that the population will bounce back, once again devastating local communities on the North Fork.
Scientists attribute the die-offs to climate change, which is warming the bay’s waters at an alarming rate and subsequently puts more stress on the already vulnerable scallops. Those at CCE have also found microparasites in abundance within the bay, which attack scallops en masse before they reach adulthood. When the first die-off hit, the Bay Scallop Restoration Program immediately changed course.
“It was nearly a 95% decline in less than a year,” Tobi said. “When the die-off first occurred, our program attempted to find surviving scallops to bring back to our research facility. We are researching if the genetics of these scallops were a factor in more resistance to the parasites and warming waters. It took us five days to find enough scallops to conduct our research.”
Fishermen, on the other hand, believe that the North Fork’s rapidly growing population has also played a part in the decline.
“This place is changing as more people move here full-time,” Sweat said. “There’s more people on boats, which means more trash in the water. As more houses are built, there’s going to be more run-off and pesticides in the water. In this industry we don’t get to retire, this is our whole life. If things keep going the way they’re going I’m afraid there will be no generation to carry on fishing after I’m gone.”
Every aspect of the fishing industry is seeing the effects of the die-off. Braun’s now sells scallops for nearly $40 per pound, a 105% increase from five years ago.
“With the seafood industry, things like this happen all the time,” said Homan. “We are at the mercy of Mother Nature. We’ve been diversifying our retail and wholesale markets for decades to protect ourselves when something dies off.”
Ken Homan, owner of Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue, one of the largest and oldest seafood distributors on Long Island. (Photo Credit: David Benthal)
At Southold Fish Market, another long-standing area seafood retailer, owner Charlie Manwaring also had to drastically increase his price per pound of scallops. However, Manwaring says he does not see too much concern from his customers.
“They are by far the best scallops on the market, but they are a luxury item,” Manwaring said. “People are okay with having scallops once or twice a year when they’re expensive. This has happened before in the ’80s and we got through it. We’re going to get through this time as well.”
Researchers back at CCE are also optimistic about the future of Peconic Bay scallops. However, their optimism stems from their extensive research and restoration efforts.
When Tobi and his team collected samples after the first wave of die-offs in 2019, they hypothesized that the surviving adults could withstand the higher water temperatures, high parasite load and low dissolved oxygen due to genetics and not just because of chance.
Their plan is to release scallops from last spring and fall’s spawn into Peconic Bay. They will then compare survival and mortality rates as well as differences in parasite loading to see if these scallops do have some measure of genetic resilience.
“In a way, we’ve been tricking nature, but we are not changing nature,” said Joshua Perry, CCE’s production hatchery manager. “We believe that these scallops survived due to natural selection. Our tests are looking at multiple reasons why these scallops can survive the die-off and how we can produce more of these populations if their genetics are in fact resilient.”
Due to their short life span, researchers are able to see results in real time. Tobi’s team says they will be able to confirm or reject their genetic hypothesis as early as October 2023.
“With our hatchery and restoration programs we are basically jump-starting the process,” said Perry. “We have no idea when our efforts will work — or even if they’ll work to completely bring back the scallop population to what it once was. There’s no single answer, but seeing our results just in the past four years, there are resilient scallops out there; we just need to see if their resilience can withstand the changing bay waters. Nothing is ever impossible.”