Scallop Harvest Poor, Prices Skyrocket

Rust tide, warmer water may be factors in decline
State waters opened for scalloping on Nov. 7. This year, the town trustees set Sunday as the opening date for harvest in town waters. David E. Rattray

“Prices are sky high,” said Stuart Heath, who was on the water in Sag Harbor yesterday, “so it’s still worth it if you get a bushel or two.” 

That may be the only consolation in the second consecutive bay scallop harvest in East Hampton Town and New York State waters that is widely seen as bleak. A daily harvest that started at two or two and a half bushels quickly declined to about half that, Mr. Heath said. 

State waters opened for scalloping on Nov. 7. This year, the town trustees set Sunday as the opening date for harvest in town waters. Francis Bock, the trustees’ clerk, told his colleagues last month that opening the waters on a Sunday, when use of a dredge or other powered device is prohibited, “will give everybody a chance to go out and get a few before dredges hit them on Monday.” 

Early predictions have proven accurate. “Pretty bleak,” was the assessment yesterday from Barley Dunne, director of the town’s shellfish hatchery in Montauk. The hatchery seeds town waterways with larval shellfish each year, and last month Mr. Dunne offered the trustees an upbeat assessment of the 8 million clams and 1.5 million oysters that were seeded this year. 

“I saw a few boats in Three Mile Harbor,” Mr. Dunne said of scallopers. “Some of the stuff we seeded there made it pretty well, so I’m assuming they’re on that.” But of other harbors, “Napeague is dry. I saw a few boats in Northwest, two or three. It’s definitely looking bleak. I think our predictions are panning out. We have to hope for next year.” 

“There’s nothing around, really,” agreed Colin Mather, owner of the Seafood Shop in Wainscott, where the hotly anticipated delicacy was selling for $29.95 per pound yesterday. This, he said, is “a very bad season, much worse” than last year. 

Mr. Dunne pointed to several factors that he thought contributed to the disappointing crop, among them blooms of cochlodinium, or rust tide. While not injurious to humans, rust tide can be harmful to shellfish and finfish. “Predation is probably foremost, if not up there with rust tide,” he said, listing crabs and conch among scallops’ predators. 

Sparse habitat, such as eelgrass, is also hindering scallops’ survival by allowing greater predation, he said. “We have seen signs of them setting in our gear every year, but if they set on the bottom, the predators are cleaning them out.” He also pointed to unusually warm water temperatures as a possible culprit. 

Mr. Heath also cited an abundance of predators, and said that he has found a tiny crab inside about half of the scallops he has opened. “I notice the meat on those isn’t quite as plump as the ones that don’t” have a crab in them, he said. 

On a more positive note, Mr. Heath, Mr. Dunne, and Mr. Mather all noticed a wealth of bugs, or juvenile scallops. Whether or not they survive until next year’s harvest is another question. “It would be nice to think they’ll all survive,” Mr. Heath said, “but I’ve seen a lot of bugs before. Who knows?”

“I’m hearing there are a lot of bugs out there,” Mr. Mather said. “But we need to not have tides” — blooms of toxic organisms like cochlodinium — “in order for them to survive.” 

“We definitely want to focus on getting more scallops out next year,” Mr. Dunne said. “Next year, instead of trying to spread it around town, we’ll probably focus on one or two harbors, and see if we can get the numbers back up.”

At the Seafood Shop, said Mr. Mather, “We’re going to be turning toward Nantucket” to accommodate customer demand for scallops. “But I’m hearing that they don’t have very many as well. It’s an off year, for sure.”