The Sudden Death of Long Island Scallops

1 month ago 4 min read
July 6, 2020
By: Colm Ashe

Long Island’s population has exploded over the last century. With all its highways, byways, and uniform rows of suburban homes, it’s easy to forget that it’s just a skinny strip off the Atlantic coast of New York. But the further east you go, the more you’re reminded of the rich fishing culture that once thrived there.

Long Island even looks like a fish. The tail fin is made of two forks, with the famed Hamptons-Montauk strip to the south and the oyster beds of Orient Point to the north. Between them is the Peconic Bay, where many islanders still make an honest living on the sea.

The prize of the Peconic is the bay scallop. Each November, long-bearded baymen-and circling seagulls-flock to the scene for the sweet, briny flavor of these iconic shellfish. Peconic scallops cost about $30 a pound, though steady supply has kept them at $25 in recent years.

In past seasons, when scallops were abundant, everybody ate. Baymen ate them raw as they reeled in more. Seagulls rained shells from above onto the pavement to expose the pearls inside. East End diners flooded the local fish markets to buy fresh scallops for their holiday feasts before they sold out.

Last year, distributors asked the baymen to slow down because they couldn’t handle their boundless bounties. This year, however, fishermen arrived on opening day just before sunset only to discover a near barren bay. Almost all of the adult scallops died over the summer.

Each year, Suffolk County’s scallop restoration project, in conjunction with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, raises the Long Island scallops, then releases them and monitors their progress. Last June was no different. The population looked promising. But when they returned in October, the bay was little more than a mass grave of empty shells.

While the culprit is still a mystery, many local fishermen, along with scientists and activists, pin the blame on climate change. Stephen Tettelbach, a shellfish ecologist who leads the local scallop restoration efforts, believes the catastrophic die-off was due to higher water temperatures and lower oxygen levels.

“I was in a meeting with Steve and he said the lethal limit for bay scallops is about 87 degrees,” says Pete Topping, a Bay Management Specialist for local non-profit Peconic Baykeeper. “The water temperature has reached 85 over the last two summers.” At this temperature, the juveniles are still surviving, which provides hope for next year. If temperatures continue to rise at the same rate, however, Peconic scallops could become relics of the past.

Climate change is causing Long Island to look more and more like its southern neighbors. For instance, marine animals that thrive in the Gulf of Mexico are spending more time in Long Island waters. One example is the cownose ray, a species that loves shellfish as much as they love warmer waters. These dramatic changes have forced experts like Pete and Steve to look beyond simple conservation and instead focus on adapting to new, possibly permanent conditions.

Eelgrass, the preferred habitat of bay scallops, were nearly wiped out in the 1930s by “ the bubonic plague of seagrasses .” Pete and his team at Peconic Baykeeper have been struggling to re-establish this critical sea plant. “We may have to import a southern species to adapt,” says Pete.

The local economy must also adjust. “People don’t realize how much money is going to be lost because we don’t have [scallops] this year,” says local fish market owner Charlie Manwaring. “Everyone will be impacted – restaurants, farm stands, breweries, wineries.”

Another local fish store, Braun’s Seafood, has estimated that they’ll lose $100,000 this year .

On December 6th, New York Governor Cuomo asked the federal government for disaster relief funds to prop up the Long Island fishing industry. But how that money gets allocated is still in question. Will it go to the fishermen? The local markets? The restaurants? Like the ecosystem, every strand on the economic web is affected by the unstable population of scallops.

Pete believes that some of the funding should go toward local restoration efforts. Without them, the shellfish may have disappeared decades ago. Before the early ’80s, the average scallop haul was 300,000 pounds. As urbanization took over Long Island, harmful algal blooms put tremendous strain on the wildlife of local estuaries. In 1985, brown tides decimated the population almost overnight.

The population fluctuated over the next decade, only to be wiped out once again by algal blooms. In 1997, the first restoration projects began. Thanks to these continued efforts, the scallop population has been inching closer to what it used to be.

But the Peconic Bay is still a far cry from its former glory. As this sorry season has shown, progress can dissipate at a moment’s notice.

Restoration experts have always dealt with the problems caused by human activities. Fertilizers, pesticides, excess nitrogen, and other toxic byproducts put enormous pressure on marine ecosystems. Solutions to those issues are gaining traction, such as updated septic systems that minimize nitrogen pollution, along with calls to ban pesticides containing glyphosate– a common Monsanto weedkiller that has been linked to cancer .

However, warming oceans are an issue that cannot be solved by local efforts. This problem is caused by the “greenhouse effect” of human activities across the globe. Without a coordinated effort to reduce emissions, rising temperatures will only cause more harm to precious ecosystems like the Peconic Bay.

So long as people like Steve and Pete work to preserve these delicate ecosystems, there is hope. Without them, there would be no bay scallops to mourn, and Long Island’s fishing culture would be another sad step closer to nostalgia.

That said, if we don’t come together as a planet to stifle the smoking guns of civilization, such as carbon and methane, no restoration effort may be able to revive the species we lose to the fire.