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Local fish markets reel from loss of bay scallops

Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, said

Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, said lack of bay scallops will impact his fall and winter traffic, but it will also "hurt the commercial fishermen a lot." Credit: Doug Young

The bay-scallop season on Long Island's East End started Monday, but Braun Seafood Co., which serves 700 restaurants and a large retail base market, has yet to take in even a pound of the prized shellfish.

"It’s a shame," said Ken Homan, the company’s president. "Everybody needs that extra buck, particularly with the economy the way it’s been this year. But it’s a bust."

As reported in Newsday on Sunday, the Peconic Bay scallop fishery appears to have suffered another catastrophic die-off, idling scores of baymen and recreational scallopers and leaving another $1.6 million hole in an economy already reeling from COVID-battered restaurants.

Local fish markets, which saw the bottom fall out of their businesses during spring lockdowns, had been looking to scallops to help shore up a difficult year that saw many bounce back sharply during the summer, mainly on the back of increased retail business and restaurants opening outdoors.

"We were down tremendously in March and April, it hurt, we were worried about our future existence, but we rebounded and had a really good summer," Homan said. "We were on pace to beat last year, retail has done double what it did in the past," and scallops would have been the icing on the cake, he said. "We [normally] sell a tremendous amount of bay scallops in the first week or two of the season. It’s a huge economic boost for the North and the South Fork. It definitely hurts."

At Gra-Bar Fresh Fish & Seafood in Copiague, co-owner Bart Molin said he is already working to replace what is normally 100-pounds a day in sales of Peconic Bay scallops from the die-off. The alternative are bay scallops from Nantucket and Cape Cod, where weather and other factors have left a big question mark for the scallop season.

"Everyone I speak to in Boston is waiting to see what happens up there as well," he said. "It’s really sad. Bay scallops are a Long Island product. It’s what we’re famous for. It’s such a shame."

Gra-Bar also shifted into retail this summer after a sharp drop-off in its wholesale business in the spring, and it’s paid off to the point where the company is considering opening a separate retail store in Island Park next year, after handling retail and deliveries mainly from the main Copiague facility. Overall business is off 39% this year, he said.

Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, said he had been in touch with 15 baymen who would normally be on the water harvesting scallops early on the first day of the scallop season. None was out Monday. "That tells you something," he said, adding high winds were also a factor.

Lack of bay scallops will impact his fall and winter traffic but it will also "hurt the commercial fishermen a lot. There’s nothing really to do for the winter," given that there isn’t the bigger market for clams there once was.

After COVID-19 shuttered his market in the spring, Manwaring said he had a banner summer, particularly with "a lot of people moving out here full time" amid the continuing pandemic.

But "now it’s getting colder, and that makes it harder on the restaurants. … We didn’t expect a great year for scallops but we wanted at least a local market." He’s also looking to New England for scallops but also holding out hope some will turn up here.

"That’s Mother Nature," he said. "She gives us and she takes. Hopefully, the juveniles that are around will live and spawn and we can start getting back on track" for 2021.

Baymen and fisheries biologists have been scouring traditional scallop grounds in recent weeks and have come up largely empty-handed in their quest for adult scallops, the second year in a row of a near-total collapse.

Scientists suspect a combination of warming, oxygen-starved waters during the bay scallop's stressful July spawning season, combined with a potentially deadly protozoan parasite and preying cow-nosed rays, are all to blame to varying levels for the die-off, though conclusive factors remain elusive.

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