An unprecedented effort by conservationists, baymen and the state to save a vulnerable population of juvenile scallops by transferring them to deeper waters has been called off after only a day because of a lack of mollusks to move.
In response to a scallop die-off, the state Department of Environmental Conservation moved quickly last week to approve a new Scallop Salvage and Relay permit to allow vulnerable scallops in an area of water near Orient Harbor to be transferred to deeper, safer waters, with the hope they’d survive and spawn next summer.
Stephen Tettelbach, an ecologist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s marine program, worked with the state and lined up five commercial scallop fishermen to dredge the area for juveniles to move earlier this week.
“The baymen went out, they dredged for hours and hours and got very few,” said Tettelbach, adding the numbers were not enough to continue the program. “There were still a good number of scallops, but not as many as we saw a month ago.”
The scallop die-off has rippled across the East End, idling fishermen, making them scarce at restaurants and fish markets, and leading scientists to scramble to find a cause. Tettelbach said higher water temperatures and low oxygen levels at the height of a stressful spawning season remains the best theory for what killed the adult scallops, but the definitive answer remains elusive.
Tettelbach will be among a number of scientists, fisheries managers and conservationists meeting Friday at the Peconic Estuary Partnership in Riverhead to discuss the problem and narrow possible causes. Recently harvested adult scallops have been sent to a pathology lab at Stony Brook University to check for a possible disease link. The work is being conducted by research pathologist Bassem Allam, a professor who specializes in mollusk diseases.
Tettelbach said there were risks with the transfer program. Juvenile scallops don’t survive well when exposed to cold air, so moving those caught as colder weather set in had to be done quickly. Smaller juvenile scallops are also harder to catch using dredges that are made primarily for keeper adult scallops, complicating the transfer program.
Tettelbach, who dove in 43-degree water to survey the area, focused on a section of Orient Harbor on the north side of Shelter Island because there was a fear juvenile scallops wouldn’t survive the winter there. As for other areas of the Peconic Bay and the South Shore, he said transferring those scallops wasn’t needed.
“The rest of the area where we saw scallops in numbers are places where they have a much better chance to overwinter so no reason to move those,” he said.
As for adult scallops, which can still be harvested, Tettelbach said there have been anecdotes of fishermen on the South Shore finding pockets of the mollusks, but the general consensus of a die-off from 91% to 100% in some areas remains unchanged.
“I have heard some people have caught scallops in East Hampton and Southampton town waters, and that’s encouraging to hear,” he said. “I’ve heard dribs and drabs of people catching a few pounds here and there. It’s pretty close to zero. I wouldn’t say it’s worse. It started out with almost no catch at all.”