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Fishermen fear die-off of Peconic Bay scallops as season starts

Anthony Rispoli hauls in scallops on Peconic Bay

Anthony Rispoli hauls in scallops on Peconic Bay in January 2019.   Credit: Veronique Louis

Fishermen on the first day of the Peconic Bay scallop season Monday came back with little to none of the precious East End catch, casting doubt on the crop after two banner years, fishermen and dealers said Tuesday.

“It’s done,” said Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, a popular scallop destination on the North Fork. “They died over the summer at some point. We don’t know what happened.”

One expert closely monitoring the scallops said warming waters and corresponding lower oxygen levels during the high-stress spawning season this summer may have combined to cause the die-off of adult scallops, with mortality rates from 91 percent to as much as 100 percent in some areas. 

"This is really a catastrophic die-off," said Stephen Tettelbach, shellfish ecologist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension's marine program and professor emeritus in biology from Long Island University, adding that juvenile scallops appear to have survived the die off. "Reports I'm hearing about the harvest are dismal." 

In addition to warming waters, Tettlebach said the scallops may be prime prey for large schools of cownose rays that have been in the area. He cast doubt on reports that an explosive blowfish population could have contributed, noting blowfish tend to feed on juveniles, not adult scallops.  

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which manages the fishery, said it is "monitoring bay scallop harvest to determine if regulatory action is necessary to change season duration or catch limits." 

Bay scallops live for up to two years, but the population is "variable and may fluctuate from year to year," the DEC said. For the past two years, fishermen took just over 108,000 pounds from Peconic and Gardiners bays. In 2016, the total catch was a mere 30,000 pounds, according to DEC figures. The bay scallop population "was decimated in 1985, and through 1994, due to repeated harmful algal blooms," the DEC said. The total catch hit a low of just 53 pounds in 1996. A high of 430,754 pounds was harvested in 1980. 

Boats fishing for his Southold market came back with a total of five pounds Monday, Manwaring said, a dismal haul after two straight years of a banner catch. Commercial fishermen can take up to 10 bushels of bay scallops a day, or 20 bushels if the boat has two or more licensed fishermen. It's unlikely any have reached that limit. Little to none is available in the stores. “Most guys are keeping them for themselves,” he said of fishermen.  

“Yeah, they all died,” said Matt Ketcham, owner of Ketcham’s Seafarm and Peconic Gold Oysters, who fishes for scallops in the fall and winter season. He said "99 percent of them" are gone.

Nate Phillips, a fisherman and owner of Alice’s Fish Market in Greenport, said word about the poor season had spread after dry runs in the weeks before. “I heard it was going to be so bad, I didn’t even put my boat in to go,” he said.

“I think it was over before it started,” Phillips added. “There was a tremendous amount of blowfish around this year, and they like to eat them. And a lot of whelks. The whelks tear them up.”

Phillips said there’s no real replacement for bay scallops. But he expects larger sea scallops may begin to see greater demand. The bay scallop season ends March 31. “People are going to have to eat sea scallops,” he said. “It’s never been this bad.”

Roger C. Tollefsen, former executive director of the New York Seafood Council, an industry group in Hampton Bays, said the reported die-off “just shows how little we understand about the nature of scallops. We can’t make a prediction about it being a good year or a bad year.”

He has long theorized that environmental programs that rid local bays of nitrogen are starving the good algae on which scallops and other shellfish feed.

“It gets back to the question, do the scallops have enough to eat?” he said. “Everybody’s focused on harmful algae but we should be focusing on beneficial algae, which we should be nurturing if we want our bay to be healthy and active.”

Tettelbach said Cornell's scallop hatchery near Orient Harbor has up to 600,000 scallops to spawn and return to local waters next year. Those shellfish were not impacted by the die-off, he said. "That's really an important spawning stock for next year," he said. 

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