The wind blowing hard from the north. The thermometer just at the freezing mark. Pitch darkness.
At the Town Dock at Congdon’s Creek, heavily-dressed men emerged from their trucks, stepped onto their boats, started their motors and were gone. It was a silent, reverent parade of baymen. Just before the sun rose 45 minutes later they were poised with dredges ready on the waters of Orient Harbor, off the Cedar Island Light, off Robin’s Island or Sag Harbor. At sunrise precisely, they threw the first dredges in the water.
Monday, November 4 was opening day to harvest scallops in New York State waters. For most of the Island baymen, opening day is a ritual that goes back decades. They first went out with their fathers or brothers and they still go out in boats they’ve owned and maintained for 30 or 40 years.
They have persevered through brown tides, hurricane run-off, die-off of the eel grass, 20 knot winds and treacheorus seas to come back to the dock at the end of the day with 5 to 10 bushels of scallops per man. Scallops that could bring as little as $8 a pound.
Why do they do it? Keith Clark, who runs a 19-foot boat said, “The draw of opening day is to see how many scallopers are left alive. Opening day is inspiring.”
The boats that go out on opening day from Congdon Creek are operated by the dozen or so remaining Shelter Island scallopers. These men, along with the occasional female “first-mate,” are the die-hards.
“There is always great expectation,” Mr. Clark said. “Someone will say there are lots of scallops out there, some will say there are no scallops. But you have to go out on opening day and see.”
The Peconic Bay scallop is a beautiful creature with a deeply ribbed shell ranging from dark brown to orange to light cream and a double ring of 18 blue eyes arranged at the edge of the interior of its shell. They move along the bottom of the bay by clapping their shells. In every load of shells, grass, crabs and scallops that Mr. Clark hauled onto his culling boards, a few scallops clapped their shells playfully, checking out the scene on board with those 18 beady eyes.
A mature scallop has a dark ring around the shell, indicating at least a year of growth. A “bug” is an immature scallop — smaller, with no ring. Bugs are encouraging for a scalloper because they indicate future potential. When bugs come up in the dredge, they get thrown back to grow some more.
But Mr. Clark is not one to get carried away. “Lots of bugs doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” he said. “Last year there were lots of bugs, but they all died.”
John Kotula, a bayman for over 30 years, goes for whelk in the spring, clams in the summer, and from the first Monday in November until the last day of March he goes for scallops. Or at least he did until the 1990s when year after year of brown tide killed the scallop industry on the East End. “There were two years, we didn’t even put the dredges in the boat,” Mr. Kotula said.
The collapse of the scallop population was a calamity that brought the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the baymen together in an agreement that scalloping season had to be shortened.
Spring is when most scallops reproduce; and the peach-colored roe that curves around the scallop in its shell is the telltale sign. A mature scallop is 18 to 20 months old, so the scallops that are being harvested now were bugs in the fall of 2012. “We used to start in September,” Mr. Kotula said. “But we were finding scallops with roe in October, and we all really wanted this industry to come back.”
The DEC regulations require that Peconic Bay scallops be harvested using medieval techniques. In scalloping, accepted technological innovation is a 36-inch dredge. It’s a device made of steel rods supporting a wire basket weighing as much as 100 pounds that is dragged along the bottom by the boat, hauled aboard by manpower and the contents dumped onto a culling board. Back in the 1970’s the haul for a dredge was often nearly a bushel of live scallops. Nowadays, it can be four or five live scallops and a pile of empty shells.
“Way before my time, you had to catch them by oar,” Mr. Clark said.
Now scallopers go out in boats with motors. But the law requires hand-hauling the dredge back to the boat.
The maximum take for a scalloper is 10 bushels a day in state waters and every scalloper who goes out on opening day is looking to gather the maximum as fast as possible. Then it’s back to terra firma to open the scallops and get them ready for sale.
Mr. Clark lugged the bushel bags of scallops off his truck and down into his shucking area. The pile of scallops he dumped on the table was alive with clicking and rustling and shells opening and closing. Joined by his wife, Louise, they started in on the mountain of shells, expertly opening each one with a three-part technique that frees each white morsel from shells and guts in a second or two.
How long does it take to open a bushel of scallops? “If you don’t look up, about a half an hour to 45 minutes” Mr. Clark said, adding that the shellfish are extremely perishable. “When you have a lot of scallops, you have to get rid of them fast, too.” By Tuesday morning, the Peconic Bay scallops dredged from the bottom Monday were at a few seafood stores across the East End where they could be had for about $18 a pound. The baymen probably got about $9 a pound from the wholesalers. But it’s pretty clear that money is not the only thing that puts baymen on the water in November.
“I do it out of stubbornness,” Mr. Clark said. “I can’t help myself.”