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Opening day is a no show — for scallops and baymen

As the sun rose on the first Monday in November, Shelter Island’s Congdon Creek town dock was deserted — not what you expect on opening day for bay scallop fishing.

A few minutes later, bayman John Kotula arrived, but not to go scalloping.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Kotula said, ignoring a stiff wind and soul-sapping 39 degrees. 

One of the few remaining Shelter Island commercial fishermen, he stood in his boat, Nancy’s Devotion, trying to decide whether to check his conch pots, or go home. Going for scallops was not an option, even if the wind hadn’t been blowing hard. As he knew all too well, there weren’t any to be had.

Shelter Island bayman John Kotula was one of the few fisherman who showed up at Congdon Creek landing on Opening day for the 2200 scallop season. But it wasn’t worth it to go for the shellfish, he said. (Credit: Charity Robey)

For hundreds of years bay scallops have been a source of joy and income to East End fishermen. Tiny and sweet, their season spans the coldest months when there’s not much else to fish for. Even after the adult bay scallops died last year, there was a glimmer of hope with a bumper crop of juvenile scallops.

Keith and Louise Clark of Shelter Island renewed the license for the scallop-processing facility in their basement, an act that was equal parts stubbornness and ungrounded optimism.

“We registered our shop and got our licenses all squared away, but got nothing to deal with,” said Mr. Clark.

The advance reports were so grim, the Clarks didn’t even go out long enough to see for themselves, although Mr. Clark put the culling boards on the boat, and will go out for a look later this week if the wind dies down.

“Most of us need some type of income,” Mr. Clark said. “We’ve just come to the conclusion that there is no money to be made on scalloping.”

Island bayman Tom Field was also a no-show for opening day 2020. Last year he took 12 scallops the first day, and spent the rest of the winter on an 86-foot squid trawler, work he used to do in high school, before he was on his own. This year, he’s fishing the Hudson Canyon instead of the Peconic Bay, even though he said, “I’d rather be working for myself than somebody else.”

Mass mortality

The death of the adult bay scallops in 2019 was shocking, but hope truly eroded in August of this year when researchers and baymen documented a second mass mortality.  According to surveys conducted by Cornell Cooperative researcher Stephen Tettelbach, Ph.D., at three sites with the highest density of adult scallops in the spring of 2020, close to 100% of the adult scallops were dead by the end of August. 

While some scallopers were finding new work, like Mr. Field, researchers were trying to find out what killed the shellfish, and what if anything could be done about it.

An initial study, conducted by Bassem Allam,Ph.D., of the Marine Animal Disease Laboratory at Stony Brook University, reported in January 2020 that 100% of the scallop samples gathered in Peconic Bay carried a parasite that could kill the scallop under stressful environmental conditions. Parasites were also found in bay scallops taken in the waters around Nantucket, where the water is cooler, and where no mass die-offs have occurred.

Although he must conduct more research to prove it, Mr. Allam suspects that stressors, such as increased water temperature and low-dissolved oxygen–symptoms of climate change, in combination with the parasite, may be causing the death of the adult scallops.

Funding any kind of research in the current climate is difficult to find, but the Cornell Cooperative Extension got some federal funds through the Paycheck Protection Program, and hired baymen to conduct dredge surveys to monitor the scallop population over the summer.

One such contract went to Wayne and Donna King of Shelter Island. “We did find some bugs,” said Donna, speaking about immature scallops. “But almost no adult scallops.” They skipped opening day this year. Mr. King said. “You don’t go out in wind like this if you don’t expect to get even a bushel.”

The couple hoped to go later in the week and find enough for their dinner.

A human-induced catastrophe

The progress that Mr. Allam made in understanding what is killing bay scallops gives him hope that it can be addressed. By testing scallops with different genetic backgrounds, he discovered that some are more resistant to disease and death due to environmental factors such as temperature.

“All scallops are not created equal. Some succumb more rapidly to disease,” he said. “That means there may be a way to improve the stock with selective breeding.” 

Mr. Tettelbach’s collaboration with Mr. Allam has solidified his view that the ultimate enemy of the bay scallop is the environmental effects of human-induced warming.

“High temperature, low dissolved oxygen, in combination with the disease,” he said. “Now I feel more strongly that it’s likely due to climate change.”

With the worldview of a historian, and the practicality of a fisherman, bayman Keith Clark doesn’t see how technological advances have done much to improve scallop numbers so far.

“I don’t think there is any hope that we could get back to where we were at the turn of the last century, when it wasn’t unusual for the big sailing sloops to come in with a hundred bushels a day,” he said.

He worries about the bay scallop’s ability to bounce back as it has in the past, “We had brown tide, and a bad run in the 80s,” Mr. Clark noted, “but when you see back-to-back years with zero scallop population, it’s not good.”