Early November is a time of Halloween hangovers, abbreviated afternoons, yard signs screaming for votes and, at least for some, Ishmael’s “damp, drizzly” weariness of the soul.
Around here you can add an important date — the opening day of scallop season. For a string of years of poor harvests, the first Monday in November was a time baymen were right in tune with the “Moby Dick” narrator’s feelings of loss for a way of life that seemed to have ended.
The Peconic Bay scallop was dying rapidly year-to-year due to human beings polluting its habitat. Poisonous fertilizer runoff from a building boom claiming every inch of our shorelines was one reason the bays turned red and brown from killer algae blooms. But even more deadly were and are the antiquated septic systems in the five East End towns pouring nitrogen into our bays and killing the life there.
Our own shortsightedness and lack of caring nearly destroyed an industry and a way of life for hundreds of East End families dependent on the bounty of the bays.
The numbers are astonishing: In the 1970s baymen were harvesting more than 400,000 pounds of scallops a year. But when the bays began to turn the color of tea in the 1980s and 1990s, those numbers started to crater. In 1996, 53 pounds of scallops were harvested.
But there might be a happy ending to this tale of woe. Through the efforts of educational, governmental and environmental institutions, the bay scallop is on its way back. Re-seeding efforts by Cornell and Long Island universities have given a new life to the tasty mollusks. The environment they need to thrive in is also being helped by efforts to upgrade septic systems on the East End.
Inspired by Town Engineer John Cronin’s wake up call 18 months ago of an environmental crisis in our midst that could easily turn into a catastrophe, our town government was energized to make changes. The American Legion building is getting a grant to upgrade its septic system, the same as Sylvester Manor, and the school could be next.
A mapping system, guided by Mr. Cronin, to locate systems on the Island, is a strong first step to bring them up to date and in workable order.
County and town programs to get money to homeowners to upgrade their own systems are in motion, with Shelter Island onboard to reap some of the funding.
These initiatives prove that dwelling on damp, dreary feelings of despair only comfort the self-indulgent. By acting, we can change the fate of the place where we live and preserve its beauty and benefits for all of us.