After signs of hope for a rejuvenation of Peconic Bay scallops in the spring, Long Island fishermen have been seeing a decline in the prized shellfish through the fall, and answers to the die-off remain elusive.
It would mark the third year in a row the iconic scallops, in Peconic and Gardiners bays, experienced a die-off, after near-record hauls in 2017 and 2018.
"All dead," said Bob Bourguignon, a Flanders bayman who clams in summer and scallops in the fall. "I talk to guys out east who fish where the scallops normally are, and they say the scallops all died."
Stephen Tettelbach, a shellfish ecologist for Cornell Cooperative Extension's marine program, said evidence of another catastrophic die off was confirmed at seven sites he monitors from Flanders to Napeague. The findings come despite what he saw as record levels of new juvenile scallops earlier this year, which had given hope for a rebound.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation said it "continues to work" with a special scallop technical review committee "to determine the factors that may have contributed to the scallop die-off and identify future actions."
The DEC said it is not proposing changes to bay scallop harvest regulations. The agency "does not anticipate that many shellfish harvesters will participate in the harvest this season, as it would not be economically viable."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, working with NOAA Fisheries, declared that New York's bay scallop fishery in 2019 and 2020 met the requirements of a "fishery resource disaster" declaration, making the fishery eligible for fishery disaster assistance. Funds haven't yet been allocated.
Joyce Novak, program director for the Peconic Estuary Partnership, said presentations at a Sept. 1 bay-scallop scallop task-force meeting, confirmed fishermen's observation of a 2021 die-off, despite increased observation areas and preliminary findings of larger numbers of juvenile scallops earlier this year.
"The die-off was extreme again," she said.
Another year of study and research still hasn't resulted in a definitive cause of the die-off. Still among the top hypotheses are suspicions of a parasite, warming waters, lower dissolved oxygen during the high-stress spawning season, and even an increase in predator cow-nosed rays in local waters.
"Certainly it's all hands on deck trying to figure it out," Novak said. " … We will figure this out."
Federal funding will be available not only for losses by fishermen but also for habitat restoration and more research, Novak said.
Tettelbach said Cornell, in addition to continued study of the three leading factors believed to be the cause of the die-off (higher water temperatures, disease and spawning-related stress) is eyeing one possible solution that could give the scallops a second chance.
Cornell is considering a plan to seed the bay with a new generation of scallops that are spawned in the fall rather than the higher stress summer.
"Scallops that are born in the fall may not necessarily spawn next summer, so if they're not spawning then, the stress of spawning isn't there," he said. "There may be a better chance of surviving."
The Peconic Estuary Program is working on restoration efforts that will give future generations of scallops a fighting chance, including improving eelgrass abundance in the bay. But in the meantime, the loss of the scallops is difficult to witness, Novak said.
"It is absolutely frustrating and heartbreaking," she said. "The Peconic Bay scallop is so iconic and a keystone species for this water body. To see it happen year after year is really troubling and there is no black or white answer, which makes it frustrating."
For some, the hope for a rebound may never come — at least while they are fishing. Bourguignon, 80, said 2021 was his final year as a bayman. He’s sold his Flanders home and is moving to South Carolina permanently, scallops or no scallops.
"It was a big industry," he said of bay scallops. "Now it’s nothing. What can you say? That’s the way it goes."