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The Great Scallop Die-Off

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 12:50

In March, the swallows come back to the cliffs of Capistrano, and in November the scallops come back to the dredges in the Peconic Bays and the suppers of the salivating. Until they don’t.

As everyone on the East End knows by now, the bay scallop season is mostly a bust. Bivalves that looked plump and healthy in June turned up dead when state waters opened last week, and so far nobody seems to know why. In the mid-’80s, when brown tide stained the bays, scallops and swimmers alike stayed away, and nobody knew for sure what had happened then either. There were theories aplenty then, most of them land-based: cesspools, fertilized lawns, a nitrogen-rich toxic cocktail. Today it’s climate change.

All of the above were surely contributing, but not definitively explaining how it is that, over the decades, the harvest continued unpredictable: Up when you least expect it, down when every sign says up. What’s a bayman or woman, deprived of a big chunk of income, or a restaurant, scrambling to change the menu, or an ordinary citizen looking to pick up a mess for dinner, to do?

As it happens, swallows left Capistrano in 2009. They were gone for eight years, and the tourist dollars along with them. Urban sprawl was responsible, officials agreed: New buildings in the area were far taller than the famous cliffs, and the birds started nesting there instead. In a two-part attack, the sounds and calls of the cliff swallows were played throughout the mission, aiming to lure the old tenants back home. Then, they built an entire wall of swallow colonies, replicating the original nests from the turn of the 20th century.

And it worked. The flocks returned in 2017, and so did Capistrano’s annual Swallows Day Parade. With scallops things are more complicated, but the idea of rebuilding ideal places for them is a good one. And, if the guesses prove correct that warming water trends are to blame, then that’s one more good reason for the East End to get serious about reversing climate change.

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