Stephen Tettelbach placed a 1-meter-square plastic frame on the bottom of Hallock Bay, brushed aside seaweed and poked around in the silt.
The Long Island University biology professor was hunting for bay scallops. He spent part of Thursday - Earth Day - 11 feet under the surface in 55-degree water to see how 200,000 hatchery-grown bivalves deposited near Orient last fall had fared over the winter.
A high rate of survival presaged a high rate of successful spawning - the goal of a $2.3-million Suffolk County-funded project conducted by LIU and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. In five years it has placed nearly 5 million scallops in East End waters.
The project is among efforts to restore the scallop industry that was decimated beginning in the mid-1980s with a decade of algae blooms known as brown tide.
Last week, when Tettelbach visited, nothing seemed alive on the bottom except crabs. But then his gloved fingers soon unearthed plenty of scallops - many he could identify from their shell markings as coming from the Cornell hatchery at Cedar Beach in Southold.
Tettelbach - filmed by frequent collaborator Rory MacNish, a Cornell multimedia specialist - counted the scallops as he dropped them into a red mesh bag and noted the totals for each stage of his survey using the plastic square. The average was 35.
After surfacing with the scallops for a closer look, he was pleased. "The survival over the winter looks very good," he said. "This should mean that we'll have lots of scallops close together at the time that the spawning season starts, so we'll continue to see the population increase, and that's what this project is all about." Spawning takes place from spring until October or November and any growth in the population would be visible in the fall. The commercial harvest starts in November.
Some signals about the scallop population are encouraging. In the Peconic Bay system, Tettelbach said, 3,300 pounds of bay scallops were harvested in 2007. In 2008, the first year that scallops from the restoration project would have been available for harvest, the catch climbed to almost 10,000 pounds. And in 2009, it was more than 20,000. "We saw more scallops on the bottom than I've seen in 20 years," he said.
In another part of the project, researchers have suspended 3,000 nets from buoys and filled them with more than 500,000 scallops in Orient Harbor, where they will be protected from predators so they can spawn.
If a rebound is under way, some fishermen say it's natural while others credit the county program. Tettelbach said the restoration work has boosted scallop numbers where the plantings have been done, but not elsewhere in the bay.
"But populations across the bay are now reaching a critical mass where things are kind of taking off," he said. "Our goal is to bring the fishery back to some semblance of what used to be."
LONG ISLAND'S SCALLOP INDUSTRY
The state's bay scallop fishery supported a booming industry until a brown tide bloom decimated the Long Island fishery from 1985-95. The scallop population, found primarily in the Peconic Bay system with some in Great South Bay, then began gradually rebuilding and may have begun to rebound in the past few years. In a restoration effort, scientists have placed millions of hatchery-grown scallops in Orient Harbor, Hallock Bay and other East End waterways.
STATEWIDE HARVESTS (in pounds)