After two hours in waders peering through a glass-bottomed box, Jerry Borriello, 76, of Montauk, had netted a laundry basket full of scallops in East Hampton.
The retired business owner smiled because he had enough for dinner, and then some. But, he said, “the crop as a whole has been very, very poor.”
In waders and wet suits, East Hampton locals fanned out Sunday for the opening day of scallop season in town waters, a little more than a week after state waters opened.
Baymen and recreational foragers reported a scarcity of scallops throughout eastern Long Island waters.
“It’s been terrible. Everywhere, it’s been terrible,” Matt Bennett, 33, of East Hampton, said from his 18-foot boat. He works the water part-time. In good years, the scallops were big, with meat inside “the size of large marshmallows.”
The drop-off this year can be blamed on the second hottest summer on record stressing out the scallops, coupled with a toxic rust tide in August that spread throughout the Peconic Estuary, said Chris Gobler, a professor of marine science at Stony Brook University. The rust tide is a harmful algal bloom caused by excessive nitrogen. He said scallops are among the most environmentally sensitive shellfish he has studied.
Fewer scallops have meant skyrocketing retail prices for the tasty bivalve.
A pound at Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett was selling for $37.99 Sunday, up from $24 last year, manager Crystal Durst said. The Seafood Shop in Wainscott was out of local scallops entirely.
Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, said the price fluctuates, but were up 25 percent to 30 percent from last year.
The demand from consumers is still there though. “People wait all year for the season,” Manwaring said.
For the first time this year, East Hampton opened the season on a Sunday, when commercial boats are banned by state law from using mechanized nets called dredgers. That gave town recreational residents a better shot at grabbing dinner.
Some commercial fishermen had threatened to flout that law, so East Hampton Town’s Marine Patrol was out, watching for boats illegally dredging and checking residents’ permits and that they weren’t keeping short scallops.
Only a handful of searchers came out to Napeague Harbor and Montauk Lake, most leaving empty-handed.
“This is normally a busy spot,” Dale Petruska, senior harbor master with East Hampton Town, said as he scanned empty waters. “This is heartbreaking.”
Aileen Florell, 57, of East Hampton, had hunted for scallops in the past. This year, though, “we didn’t bother. We heard it wasn’t that good.”
At Three Mile Harbor, persistent fishermen could get the daily quota — after hours patrolling the water staring through a “look down” box, usually made from scraps of wood and clear plastic.
Samantha Bye, 13, pulled on waders, yanked on shoulder-length gloves and grabbed a net before stepping into the frigid waters Sunday off Sammy’s Beach.
Her dad, Ted Bye, 43, stayed on shore. He grew up in East Hampton and now lives in Levittown. But he wanted her to experience a piece of what it was like to grow up near the water.
“I want her to see this stuff,” he said. “The outdoor life.”