Over the weekend, Southold bayman Pete Wenczel took a break from his busy fishing season to haul out gear he once feared would become obsolete: his scallop dredges, the mesh baskets fishermen use to scoop scallops off the bay bottoms.
Tomorrow is the opening of New York's bay scallop season, a day when hope and memory of past bounties send dozens out on the water in search of the tender bivalves some call "jewels of the bay."
New York harvests remain a tiny fraction of what they were before 1985, when brown tide algae nearly decimated Long Island's scallop population. Still, this year Wenczel and others voice cautious optimism that bay scallops have finally regained a tentative foothold.
"It's great to have a few scallops back," said Wenczel, 56. "You're not getting your limit or anything like that, but I've been able to at least make a living during the winter."
The agency expects at least 100 boats out on opening day. Earlier this decade, baymen ran through most of the scallops in just a few weeks. But in recent years some have been able to fish the whole season, which runs through March.
Those who work and study the waters credit the mini-revival to time and luck - more than a decade has passed since the last brown tide. Some point to restoration work that has placed nearly 5 million scallops in East End waters to jump-start the population.
"We are seeing some improvements. We're not sure if that's due to restoration efforts or to natural recovery," said DEC biologist Debra Barnes.
Scallop populations tend to fluctuate naturally. They live 18 to 24 months but spawn only once, so populations dip and rise depending on how many juveniles survive and each set's reproductive success.
That cyclical flow was disrupted here in 1985 when harmful algae bloomed for the first time in Peconic Bay. The blooms tinted the bay brown and starved the scallops by hindering their ability to filter nutrients from the water. Brown tide also blocked sun from reaching marine plants, killing off eelgrass meadows that were once prime scallop habitat.
Researchers who have worked since the 1980s with volunteers and local governments to restore local scallop populations say their efforts have turned a corner recently. "We've seen some of the highest adult densities certainly compared to the last six years," said Stephen Tettelbach, a biology professor at Long Island University's C.W. Post Campus in Brookville.
"I think things look good this year," he said last week. "We're seeing good numbers of adult scallops - those that will be harvestable Monday."
Good is, of course, a relative term. Before the crash, some baymen made much of their year's income off local scallops.
New York bay scallop harvests once averaged 200,000 to 300,000 pounds a year. Last year the official catch was 18,000 pounds - a bumper crop by recent standards. The biggest official scallop harvest since 1995, it's still a reduction of more than 90 percent compared to historic landings. Many baymen have since turned to conch and other species to fill in the gaps.
At 29, Nathan Andruski is too young to have tossed a dredge during the fishery's midcentury heyday. But he's watched things improve, slowly, and he plans to be out today.
"Some spots slough off, but then they pick back up. You see more scallops in different places," said Andruski, president of the Southold Town Baymen's Association. "Judging from what I've seen, it should be pretty good."