Die-Offs Discourage Prospects for Scallop Harvest

Napeague, Three Mile Harbor are exceptions

    Prospects for the scallop season were unsettled this week, as baymen get ready for state and Southampton waters to open for dredging on Nov. 5 and East Hampton waters on Nov. 12. A bountiful harvest looks as though it could be the best in years in Napeague and Three Mile Harbors, while high hopes have been replaced by skepticism in Northwest Harbor and elsewhere because of unexpected die-offs.
    Greg Rivara, a shellfish biologist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, said yesterday that the rumors of a scallop die-off were true anywhere that was touched by last summer’s “mahogany tide,” the name he used for colonies of the algae Cochlidium polykrikoides. “It’s like brown tide, but not as bad,” he said. But bad enough to set back the scallop recovery, which began in 2005. 
    In August, those monitoring the scallop population in the Peconic Estuary had reported a dramatic increase in juvenile and adult scallops, with the numbers rivaling the population prior to the series of Aureococcus anophageferrens, brown algae, tides, which began in 1985 and all but destroyed the resource. The commercial fishery, in which 400 to 600 baymen worked, had been valued at $2 million to $4 million, or, in today’s dollars, at more than $10 million.
    Early efforts to bring scallops back were frustrated by the inability of a disparate stock to breed. This was made difficult by the fact that scallops live only 18 to 22 months and usually reproduce only once.
    Then in 2005, Suffolk County gave a $2 million grant to a Cooperative Extension Peconic Bay scallop restoration project. It was aimed at improving breeding by seeding protected spawning sanctuaries with enough scallops to practically guarantee success. The theory was that spat generated within the sanctuaries eventually would be carried hither and yon to augment natural sets. 
The program was also funded by the Long Island Regional Development Council.  
    Barley Dunn, director of the town shellfish hatchery on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk, which received county funding for scallop sanctuaries in Napeague and Three Mile Harbors, has reported finding 185 times as many scallop larvae on the collecting screens than was found three years ago.
    “Since we started, spat collection has been up. Napeague is off the charts,” Mr. Dunne said on Tuesday. Without wanting to identify the exact locations of dense sets of the precious bivalves, the hatchery director said he had observed areas where scallops “virtually carpeted the bottom.”
    That was how prospects looked elsewhere in August. “Huge, huge, huge, way more than we’ve been seeing. We’ve seen a new record every year. Last year we caught 80,000 spat across 25 sites in the bays over a five-and-a -half month period. This year, in our first sampling of 25 stations we had 131,000 — huge numbers,” Stephen Tettlebach, professor of biology at C.W. Post College, said at the time.
    Yesterday, however, Dr. Tettlebach had a different report. He said the annual fall survey, completed last week, showed that bug, or juvenile scallops, seemed to have survived the blight, but that Northwest Harbor, where Southampton and East Hampton baymen dredge for scallops, seems badly affected.
    Dr. Tettlebach said in many areas the survey found “densities way down from spring, a lot of dead scallops we call ‘cluckers,’ that signifies recent mortality, perhaps the last two months.” He said the biggest die-offs were in areas that had the highest concentrations of scallops last spring, which led him to think that “food limitation” might have something to do with the die-offs. 
    Meanwhile, during Tuesday night’s meeting of the East Hampton Town Trustees, Nat Miller expressed concern over scallop poaching, which he said was a growing problem. Poachers sometimes go into the sanctuaries, which are off-limits, or start dredging before the season opens.
     At Mr. Miller’s suggestion, the trustees will ask Ed Michels, the town’s senior harbormaster, to increase surveilance of local waters throughout the scallop season.