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On the Water: Sad News for Scallops, Again

Thu, 11/09/2023 - 14:41
Robert Cugini of Seattle came all the way to Sag Harbor for the opening day of bay scallop season.
Terie Diat

Much as I've done for over 50 years, despite some very dire predictions, I once again decided to drop my heavy scallop dredges in the water just as the sun dawned to the east on Saturday morning. Despite the dour dock talk, it's a ritual I refuse to give up on. Stubborn is as stubborn does.

Bay scallop season was set to open 48 hours later in state waters, on Monday, but I wanted to do a bit of preseason prospecting and personally confirm if the lousy predictions were accurate.

I only took two dredges with me. That was more than enough to gauge if it made sense to lug four more out of my basement for Monday. I was prepared to be disappointed.

For background, the past five seasons have been disastrous for the popular local bivalve. Marine scientists now seemingly agree that a mixture of high water temperatures, low oxygen levels, and the discovery of a new parasite, all combined with the stress of spawning in late spring, have led to a massive die-off of adult scallops during the summer months. It's a sad situation that frustrates many.

Last season, Lake Montauk was the only location with a decent set of scallops on the East End. Waters in the Town of East Hampton will open to scalloping in two weeks. Personally, I did land my one bushel limit on opening day last November in and around Shelter Island Sound. However, the next day I struggled to land barely a quarter bushel. It was futile to continue beyond that.

Exiting the Sag Harbor breakwater, I steered the Rock Water to the right toward Havens Beach, a short distance away. After dropping the dredges into the 54-degree crystal-clear water, I and two others aboard that morning anxiously awaited to haul them aboard. 

One of my companions, Robert Cugini, traveled all the way from Seattle to join me that morning. A friend of his, Philippe Dor, also from Seattle, was flying in later that evening to partake of his first-ever trip for scallops on Monday with yours truly. 

As for Robert, he has dutifully joined me on opening day for well over 15 years. He's witnessed seasons that have been everything from boom to bust. Still, I informed him on the ride out that this season would likely be the latter. 

By background, Robert and I met for the first time sitting next to each other at the copper-topped bar at the old Paradise restaurant on Main Street in Sag Harbor on the opening day for scallops many years ago. 

That evening, I had brought in a pound or so of the freshly shucked bivalves I had caught a few hours earlier. Eric Peele, the general manager, ushered them off to be fried up in the kitchen behind us.

While sipping on white wine and making conversation with Robert about my day on the water, the bounty was delivered to me: an immense plateful of sauteed scallops.

I immediately noticed I had way too many to consume. For those not in the know, bay scallops are very rich on the palate. I offered some of them to Robert. We've been best friends ever since. Scallops seemingly bring forward great friendships.

"Okay, let's see what we got," I said as I put my diesel engine into neutral. "Let's bring the dredges up. Fingers crossed." The two dredges were filled with a heavy mixture of brown and green seaweed when they were dumped on the culling board on the stern deck. 

"Not looking good," said Robert, as he searched for scallops with his rubber gloves. My wife, Terie, nodded in agreement. We only found one adult scallop and nary a juvenile. Not a good start, but not exactly a surprise either. 

For the next two hours, we tried various locations. Some areas were totally devoid of life. A few spots yielded a half-dozen or so. In banner years, I could sometimes have 50 scallops in each dredge within a 10-minute trawl. I'm glad I still have those memories of better days gone by. 

Even though we were disappointed in what we saw on Saturday morning, we all agreed to try again on Monday. We knew we could scratch out a few scallop dinners. 

That turned out to be the case. It took a few hours, but we managed to eke out a full bushel basket of scallops on Monday. When shucked back at the dock, we probably had about six pounds of scallop meat. 

While we were satisfied with our catch, we could not help but be reminded of the bountiful catches of the past. I'm an optimistic person by heart, but as for our beloved bay scallop, it's hard not to fathom that we might never again witness the days of endless bountiful catches.     

Fishing tips, observations, and photographs can be sent to [email protected].

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