Despite a summer-long tale of algae blooms and deteriorating conditions in East End waters, scientists who study Peconic Bay scallop populations are predicting a decent season, which opens at dawn Monday.
Dr. Stephen Tettelbach, who, along with Dr. Chris Smith, runs the Peconic Bay Scallop Restoration Project for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, said his research team finished their fall population surveys of 30 hot spots throughout the bays this week.
“It looks pretty good. I don’t know if it’s gonna be a great year, but hopefully it will be near the last few years,” he said in an interview Friday.
Dr. Tettelbach said the scallop fishery landings started to increase dramatically in 2010, not long after his group began growing scallops to reseed the bays. He said the state Department of Environmental Conservation has reported about 40,000 pounds of scallop meat from the Peconic Bays for the last three years, though he believes the unofficial landings are closer to 100,000 pounds.
Before the brown tide hit the bays in 1985, baymen were landing about 300,000 pounds of scallop meat annually.
Despite the consistent reported number of landings over the past several years, Dr. Tettelbach said the season opening last year was a bit of a bust, as his survey crews were pulling up large number of “cluckers,” dead scallop shells with the hinge still attached , not long before opening day. Superstorm Sandy also contributed to a slow opening to last year’s season, as the bays were closed to shellfishing for several days directly after the storm.
Though many scientists pointed to a new “rust tide” bloom in the bays as a possible source of the die-off, Dr. Tettelbach is still not convinced rust tide was the only culprit.
“The winter of 2011 to 2012 was a warm winter and that might have adversely affected the overall survival of the scallops. It’s certainly possible it was a combination of the warm winter and the rust tide,” he said. “We’re still working on some samples from last year, trying to pinpoint when the mortality might have occurred. At this point, I just don’t know. There may have been some issues with the food levels. It was potentially too low in some areas. The size of the scallops was really small compared to what it normally is.”
This summer, rust tide spread farther into the Peconic Bays than it had in the past, but doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on the scallops, he said. Rust tide is not the same algae as brown tide, which wiped out the scallops in the 1980s. It also differs from toxic red tide. It is not toxic to humans but can be toxic to other marine life.
“We always see mortality, of course, between the spring and the fall,” he said. “We’ve seen some gradual attrition due to predation, but nothing like we saw last year, no mass die-offs in the same spots.”
Dr. Tettelbach was deliberately vague, however, when asked to point out what might be the best secret scallop spots this year.
“We’re really seeing scallops pretty much everywhere we look. We’re not seeing huge numbers in any particular spots,” he said. “Last year, there were big numbers coming from out in East Hampton, in Napeague Harbor. We have not been out there and we do not have any idea of what things look like there. There are not quite as many this year around Robins Island and to the west.”
“We dive about 30 sites in the bays, and there are lots and lots of areas that we don’t get to,” he added.
Earlier this fall, a petition to the Southold Town Trustees to suspend commercial scalloping in the historically good scalloping grounds of Hallocks Bay was making its way around Orient, but the Trustees office had not received the petition as of Friday.
Orient Association President Venetia Hands said in October that she’d heard rumors about the petition, but she didn’t know who was circulating it.
The petition said that scallop dredges had scoured the bottom of Hallocks Bay, but Dr. Tettelbach said he didn’t think the changes in the bay were due to scallop dredges.
“There really doesn’t seem to be very much there, from our surveys,” he said. “Hallocks Bay is an enigma. It used to be a great spot, but it hasn’t been for several years. The bottom looks different, the number of scallops is way down and it doesn’t seem to be the same system it used to be. All the eelgrass in there is gone, the bottom seems to be harder, and it is muddier now.”
“I don’t think it was dredged too much,” he said. “There is some question of clam raking in areas where the eelgrass was, but there may be other reasons why the eelgrass died back.”
Dr. Tettelbach said this year’s late set of baby scallops that will grow to harvestable size next season appears to be very healthy, which could bode well for the future.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. You never know until everybody starts bringing them in,” he said. “I’m hopeful it will be a decent year, but the bar of expectation has been raised.”