Yum! Scallops Are Here

The empty shells filling the pails outside the Lester family’s shop off Abraham’s Path in East Hampton announce that the scallop season has begun.

       The scene: Tuesday, Nov. 4, Stuart’s Seafood Market, Amagansett, one day after the start of the 2013 scallop season. A man stands before the store’s display case. A woman, a longtime friend, enters, greets her friend and stands beside him looking into the case.

       As the counter clerk approaches, the man begins to ask: “Have you come for . . . ?”

       The woman gives the clerk a furtive glance, leans closer to her friend, turns her head toward his ear and whispers as though fearing to appear disloyal, not wanting to jeopardize a future supply: “I’m getting them from someone else.”

       The Harvest Restaurant in Montauk five days later: The restaurant’s famous bay scallop dish, plump nuggets lightly dusted with corn meal, resting in a puddle of buttery sauce, is not listed on the menu. The server approaches, leans close to the table like Peter Lorre as Signor Ugarte hawking letters of transit at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca and says, sotto voce: “We’ve got them.”

       Thanksgiving Day does not arrive until Nov. 28, but for many East End locals, it began — with an undercurrent of secretive expectation in case of a short supply — on the first Monday of the month in state waters including Orient Harbor on the North Fork and Northwest Harbor on the South Fork.

       The season opened a week later in town waters including, in East Hampton, Lake Montauk, Accabonac, Three Mile, and Napeague Harbors, the latter body last year producing one of the best harvests in recent memory, certainly since before a series of brown algal tides decimated the scallop population beginning in the mid-1980s.

       Accabonac Harbor will remain closed to shellfishing until the end of the month by the State Department of Environmental Conservation because of incomplete water testing. Cold Spring Pond in Southampton will also remain closed until month’s end.

       By most accounts, this year’s scallop crop is not as strong as last year’s, yet strong enough to keep dredges working into the winter. Nat Miller, an East Hampton bayman and town trustee, said it looked like he’d be able to work on scallops into the winter.

       Steven Tettlebach, a professor of marine science at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University has studied the scallop resource for decades and has surveyed the population’s recovery since the dark days of the brown blooms.

       “When we did our surveys in October we saw scallops everywhere we looked. Not massive concentrations, but they are out there, maybe not as big a bonanza as last year but guys are going to be able to grind out a catch.”

       The survey looks at waters from Flanders near the head of the Peconic Estuary to Orient and Northwest Harbors. Mr. Tettlebach said the upper reaches of the estuary do not appear to be as productive this year.

       On the other hand, there are plenty of bug (juvenile) scallops in evidence, and the meats, the delicious abductor muscles of Argopocten irradians, seem to be larger, at least those from Orient Harbor, 51 count per pound as compared to an average 55 count last season.

       The slimmer pickings have also adjusted the price upward from about $22 per pound at the start of the state season opening to about $28 on Tuesday, but the flavor, many say, is priceless.