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Scallop season, a living link to the past

 CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO  Island scallopers heading out from Congdon Creek at sunrise on Monday.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Island scallopers heading out from Congdon Creek at sunrise on Monday.

There’s a day in November when families on Shelter Island gather at their dinner tables and eat the same meal as their neighbors.

Not turkey, that’s later. For fishermen, their families and friends, on the first Monday in November, the menu is Peconic Bay scallops.

On Monday, a ritual central to the lives of many Island families, and timed to the life cycle of a striped mollusk, unfolded as it has for decades. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, rose before dawn, endured 18-mph winds and “real feel” temperatures around freezing, steered their boats into the rolling waters of the bays and at first light threw out the first scallop dredges of the new season.

John Kotula and his son Wade were loaded and ready to go, but still debating where.

“There’s a Dr. Seuss story about the man who can’t decide at the fork in the road. That was me all night,” John Kotula said, “Maybe we’ll get enough for dinner.”

From preliminary reports, Mr. Kotula and his fellow baymen didn’t go hungry Monday night. Kolina Reiter at Bob’s Seafood Market saw a lot of scallops coming in off pickup trucks and into the back room opening day. “More than there’s been in a long time,” Ms. Reiter said, “It’s a bonanza.”

One signifier of a good season is price. This year’s abundance brings scallops to around $15 a pound retail, versus $20 a pound on opening day in 2013.

The Peconic Bay scallop is a distinctive creature, living only 18 to 20 months in the bays, harbors and creeks of Eastern Long Island. They are tiny, sweet, and since the late 1980s, very rare.

Under New York State law, scalloping is permitted from the first Monday in November through March 31 in state waters. Opening day for local waters such as Coecles Harbor, West Neck Creek and Menantic Creek is one week later.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation put these regulations in place to protect the mollusk, which nearly disappeared in the late 1980s after flourishing through 100 years of commercial fishing. Organizations such as the Cornell Marine Scallop Program have worked to restore the scallop population by seeding, including a 2005 initiative that put out millions of young scallops — called bugs — and generated measurable improvement in Orient Harbor.

Scallops link Shelter Island’s culture to history. The culture, of making a living from surrounding nature, is fading but still preserved by Islanders, and the history lives in people’s memories and at the Shelter Island Historical Society.

“That’s Charles Congdon,” said Phyllis Wallace, archivist at the Society, as if Mr. Congdon might walk through the door any minute. Ms. Wallace was holding a 130-year-old invoice for the sale of 23 pounds of scallops by C. A. Congdon to John Elsey, a New York seafood distributor from December 1884.

The sale took place five months after the Long Island Rail Road linked New York City and Greenport, marking the beginning of commercial scalloping on Shelter Island when rail access brought the Island’s seafood to one of the largest, and hungriest, cities in the world.

Scalloping technology today hasn’t changed much from the best practices of the 1880s; pull a dredge — a frame with a bag attached — behind a boat. The bottom of the dredge hits the scallop and the tide pops the scallop into the bag.

For 60 of the last 100 years, the prime place to get a dredge was from Paul Nossolik, aka “Paul the Blacksmith,” who made them by hand in a soot-coated barn in Greenport until he retired in the 80s — his and the 20th century’s.

The key to immortality for an artisan is working in a durable medium, such as iron. It’s hard to find a local bayman who doesn’t own several of Paul the Blacksmith’s creations, made to order, passed down from a father or brother, or a lucky yard sale acquisition.

Keith Clark still uses sloop dredges with a sharp edge made in that Greenport shop. He recalled watching the blacksmith working at his forge with bellows, hammer and anvil. “It was amazing to watch … every dredge was custom made, a lost art today,” Mr. Clark said. “His fingers were black and there was soft coal all around the shop up to your knees. You came out of there smelling like a smoked eel.”

Paul the Blacksmith made dredges sized for all the waters where mollusks were found. Large dredges with a sharp edge were used on “outside waters” with a sandy or “hard” bottom. Smaller dredges, with a chain instead of a bar designed for a “soft bottom,” usually mud, were generally used in inside waters, such as Coecles Harbor. The smaller dredges were also lighter, and many a scalloper gracefully aged into using them over the course of a lifetime.

Skip Tuttle was 12 when he began scalloping with his father, Maurice, in the late 1950s. “I got a commercial license when I was 14,” Mr. Tuttle said, “so young that my father had to sign for me.”

His scalloping days started around the time the first significant laborsaving device came into use — the motor. Prior to that, it was either a man or the wind that powered scallop boats.

In a rowboat, it was manpower. Baymen used a technique called warping. “Put down an anchor, let out 400 feet of line, the bayman hauls the boat along the line with the dredges pulling along behind,” Mr. Tuttle said, “It took a lot of strength to haul the boat and the dredges before there was power.”

A type of sloop called a catboat was the vessel of choice for scallopers who used windpower to drag dredges before motors were permitted. With the mast very close to the bow, no jib and just a mainsail, they were stable. “They were fat, almost round, and you sailed on the beam,” Keith Clark remembered.

“Catboats were the perfect platform for work. Didn’t draw any water. In Menantic Creek they could put the nose up on shore and open scallops on the beach.”

Steve Lenox has scalloped “since I was big enough to get on my father’s boat,” he said. “I’ve seen the good years and I’ve seen the bad years.” Lenox remembers opening day 28 years ago, his brother’s 50th birthday. “We went out and everything was dead. Brown algae killed everything.”

Like many scallopers, Mr. Lenox is a hands-on environmentalist. “You’ve got to give back,” he said. “If you’ve got bugs around you’ve got to throw them back.”

Now in his 70s, Ed Clark has been scalloping for most of his life with his wife, Ann, at his side. She said, “My job is to cull and put them in the bushel baskets. Standing in one spot you tend to get colder. The men are pulling dredges, so they get warm.”

“I wear a gold scallop shell around my neck all the time,” Ms. Clark added, “My husband gave it to me.”
Going out on opening day is an essential tradition in her family. “It gets in your blood,” she said. “You’ve got to go.”

Scalloping was an important source of income for the Clark family for many years, helping them raise their five children. Ms. Clark is proud that everyone in her family knows their way around a scallop knife.

“There is a certain technique,” she said. “Some people don’t know how to open a scallop anymore. My children were opening scallops in second grade, standing on a stool. They called me ‘Slave driver.’”

“From the 30s until 1985, scalloping was a basic part of many a family’s living,” Mr. Tuttle said. “You could take 10 bushels a day every day for the whole season, and many did. The price was 25 cents a pound when I was 14 years old. If the price went up a nickel, it was the talk of the town.”

It’s not easy to talk about the loss of a way of life, especially when it’s your own. What was lost when the scallop business collapsed in the late 80s went beyond a local industry.  “The facts and figures don’t show what was lost when the scallop industry died,” Keith Clark said.

Harvesting scallops might mean $20 a day, $100 a week at a time when a basic salary might be $200 a week, Mr. Clark remembered, and it was a cash business.

“Even if you didn’t scallop for a living, you went out,” he said.

The local economy in the winter was fed by scallop dollars. Anita and Louis Cicero, owners of the Shelter Island Barber Shop, saw the collapse measured in fewer haircuts. “There weren’t as many middle class, year-round families out here anymore,” Ms. Cicero said, “When the scallop business died, that’s when it started to be a more seasonal population, and it got to be very hard for people to make a living in the winter.”

On Monday, scallopers returned to the docks with full bushel baskets, hauled them into licensed basement processing rooms, rounded up anyone who still knows how to open a scallop and got to work.

The harvest looks good.

“The first night, I like to give all my friends a scallop dinner,” said Skip Tuttle. The Yogi Berra of baymen, his advice to first time cooks: “Don’t cook ’em too long. When they’re not quite done, they’re done.”