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Cuomo requests federal disaster declaration, aid for scallop die-off

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at his Manhattan office

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at his Manhattan office on May 12. Credit: Charles Eckert

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday requested the U.S. Department of Commerce issue a disaster declaration for the Peconic Bay scallop fishery, following a catastrophic die-off of scallops in East End waterways.

An immediate declaration of a disaster is needed, he said, to provide “direct economic relief for the New York fishing industry.”

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Cuomo requested that the federal government formally declare a fishery failure in the bay scallop fishery in the Peconic Bay Estuary due to a “fishery resource disaster.”

Cuomo did not site a figure for economic losses or impacts tied to the die-off.

The move comes as researchers and biologists from the state, Suffolk County, Cornell University and Stony Brook University gathered Friday night at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus to detail the latest information about the die-off, which was first recognized as the scallop season opened Nov. 5.

At the conference, Chris Gobler, professor of marine science at Stony Brook University and director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology, said a combination of high temperatures, low oxygen and stress during the spawning season likely contributed to the die off.

But he also noted higher CO2 levels and corresponding increased acidification of local waterways also could have contributed. “This [scallop] population is very sensitive to acidification,” he said.

Scallop heart rates increased during higher temperatures, increasing the stress, he said.

Brad Peterson, associate professor at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said though cow-nosed rays, which eat scallops, were more prevalent in local waterways this year, the “evidence is not rock solid” that they were the prime reason for the die off. 

Previously, scientists have cited high water temperatures and the resulting low oxygen levels during the scallops’ July spawning season as the most likely reason for the die-off. Some have also cited an unusual prevalence of cow-nosed rays, which prey on adult scallops, as another possible cause.

Cuomo in his letter noted the “exact cause of the die-off is unknown” but pointed to the high summer water temperature and related factors as the theory favored by scientists.

“The unexpected and sudden loss of the bay scallop resource represents a total collapse of this important commercial fishery and a devastating financial hardship for fishermen and maritime businesses that warrants immediate need of disaster relief to the industry,” Cuomo wrote.

He estimated that hundreds of baymen participate in the fishery and that the income from a season that lasts from early November to the end of March compromises a “significant portion of their income.”

“The current catastrophic loss of adult scallops is a devastating fishery disaster for both commercial baymen and local seafood dealers and markets that depend on this resource and increased revenues annually,” he wrote.

Disaster relief funds are “urgently needed” to restore the resource for the health of the estuary and the commercial and recreational fishery, he added.

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