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Scallop die-off ripples through the East End economy

Flanders fisherman, and sometime scallop seller, Bob Bourguignon,

Flanders fisherman, and sometime scallop seller, Bob Bourguignon, seen Wednesday, has packed up his driveway scallop sign and dredges and is heading south after the scallop die off. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

This week, Flanders fisherman Bob Bourguignon stored away the “scallops” sign that has drawn customers to his driveway this time of year since 1984. He packed away his scallop dredges, winterized his boats and is on his way South Carolina for the winter.

“I’m leaving cause there’s no scallops,” said Bourguignon, 78, who has been fishing, clamming and crabbing in Long Island since he was 16. He dredged for scallops two days straight and, “We didn’t see anything.” He normally holds out until at least the end of November.  

Just one week after the opening of the Peconic Bay scallop season, the impact of a massive die-off of the prized adult mollusks has begun to ripple through the East End economy. Restaurants have begun to rework their menus, pressing local fishermen for prized pounds of scallops or sourcing them from northern markets as far away as Nantucket. Fishermen who traditionally top off their annual wages with a late windfall from scallops have either switched to other fisheries or, like Bourguignon, left the region for warmer climates. “I know baymen who had to get other jobs,” he said, including offshore fishing.

The retail price of scallops has soared. At Braun Seafood Co. in Cutchogue last week, the price hit $34 a pound, more than double the $15 they hit during the height of the season last year, manager Keith Reda said.

But that price didn’t dissuade one customer one afternoon last week. Travis McFetridge, who operates Great South Bay Music in Patchogue, read about the shortage and scoured seafood shops from Southold to Cutchogue before he found just over six pounds of bay scallops and bought them all. The bill: $226.70. “I’ve been everywhere,” he said of his odyssey to find bay scallops.

Scallop lovers have a choice. Larger and more widely available sea scallops at $16.95 a pound are a relative bargain, Reda said. Braun’s also offers previously frozen bay scallops from Peru, but Peconic Bay scallops they are not. “They don’t quite compare to ours,” Reda said. By Friday afternoon Braun was again out of bay scallops. 

Biologists and fisheries managers still aren’t sure exactly what killed off the adult scallops this year. Stephen Tettelbach, a shellfish ecologist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s marine program, said it appears warmer water during the scallop’s stressful mating season in July is the prime culprit. There’s also a theory that cownose rays may be preying on them, leading to mortality rates that Cornell has recorded from 91 to 100 percent in some Long Island waters. Tettelbach called the phenomenon a “catastrophic die off.”

Joyce Novac, program director of the Peconic Estuary Partnership, which monitors and manages the watershed, said higher water temperatures have been recorded throughout the Peconic region for the past two years, sometimes exceeding 80 degrees. "There have also been low dissolved oxygen levels – a parameter often affected by high nutrients in the water," she noted in a statement. "However, at this time we do not know the exact cause of this die-off."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation says it’s monitoring the bay scallop fishery to determine if measures are needed to help preserve the mollusks, which can live up to two years but generally spawn only once, in summer. Right now, commercial scallopers can take 10 bushels a day of the scallops, and the season runs through March 31.  

State records show a widely fluctuating history of bay scallop landings over the past 40 years. The last big die-off was in1996, when just 53 pounds were landed. Before that it was 1987, with 373 pounds. In 1980, fishermen landed 430,754 pounds, according to state records.

Last year, when a total of 108,115 pounds of bay scallops were harvested across the region, Braun’s would sell 40 to 50 pounds a day, Reda said. Last week the store was lucky to get less than half that amount, and Reda said the way things were going, “I can’t imagine we’ll get through the end of November.” 

Braun’s supplies not only its retail customers but other seafood shops and restaurants, and Reda put the total impact at millions of dollars for the lost season.

McFetridge said he expects he might freeze some of the scallops he was lucky enough to buy — if they lasted the ride home. “I’ll eat some driving back to Patchogue,” he said.

In Greenport, Matty Boudreau, culinary manager for three restaurants on Main Street — Industry Standard, Green Hill and Anker — was able to score three pounds of scallops last week from his local supplier, Southold Seafood Market, but he knew the supply was not going to last long.

“This is one of the staples of our region,” he said. “It’s going to disappoint a lot of people.”

He was working on a single special appetizer using scallops, bacon and grilled cauliflower at the Green Hill restaurant, but that’s nowhere near what it would have been a year ago. Bay scallops “would have been a nightly special, every night.”

In Jamesport, the cooking staff at Jedediah Hawkins was working its sources to free up some supply. “It’s bad but we do have our connections,” if needed, said sous chef Joe Domanski. “If that’s your demand, you figure out supply.”

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