Sewing scallops in Long Island’s bays

December 7, 2008 at 8:24 pm Leave a comment

Days after a killing freeze signaled the end of the local growing season on land, farmers of a different sort braved gusting rains to tend an underwater crop off Shelter Island.

On a recent wet morning, Chris Clapp and Wally Daniel of the Nature Conservancy on Long Island hoisted aquaculture cages from the waters of Log Cabin Creek into a flat-bottomed boat. Each cage held about 300 young bay scallops reared since July in a marine sanctuary at the group’s Mashomack Preserve.

“These are going to be transplanted to some sea grass beds out in Shinnecock Bay for a program we have with the Town of Southampton,” said Clapp, an estuary specialist. This year the group hopes to sow about 100,000 scallops there, with another 50,000 destined for waters off Shelter Island.

The scallops nurtured at Mashomack are part of a larger effort by the Nature Conservancy, East End towns and Suffolk County to restore depleted shellfish populations in the East End bays that crashed in the 1980s. Experts attribute the loss to overharvesting, harmful “brown tide” algae blooms and the long-term decline of marine habitats.
Now in its third year, the scallop program in the Western Peconic Bays was started by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Conservancy and the Town of Southampton have since helped pay for the project.

“Historically the bay scallop harvest in the Peconics and Shinnecock accounted for one quarter of the national harvest,” with average harvests of about 400,000 pounds, said Wayne Grothe, of the conservancy.

The 1985 appearance of brown tide in Long Island waters changed all that. The algae produces a chemical that in high concentrations makes it hard for bivalves such as scallops to feed; it also turns the water an opaque brown, robbing marine plants of the light they need.

“I think the next year the total harvest in New York state was 91 pounds,” said Grothe, a former bayman.

Bay scallops have since rebounded, but nowhere near enough to match their onetime abundance. A seeming recovery in the 1990s ended in 1996, when 53 pounds of scallops were harvested in New York waters. Since then, landings have averaged around 5,000 pounds; the 2007 harvest was 818 pounds.

The scallops bound for Shinnecock Bay that day were smaller than a pinkie nail when they arrived from a Massachusetts hatchery. After they were submerged at Log Cabin Creek in July, they grew rapidly and were soon transferred from mesh bags to cages that had to be pulled out every two weeks and cleaned. That ensured algae and other marine life didn’t divert water from the young scallops.

“It’s very labor intensive,” Clapp said of the endeavor.

By late November, the scallops were nearly six months old and about 1.7 inches long, measuring from the hinge to the lip of the shell. That’s too small to harvest – New York’s limit is at least 2.25 inches – but big enough to dissuade predators such as spider crabs.

Back onshore, Clapp and Daniel shook each cage out into a plastic tub, then poured the contents into large garbage bins. They filled each bin with water to keep the scallops hydrated so they would sink to the bottom when deposited later in Shinnecock Bay’s remaining eelgrass meadows.

Grothe already has cautious hopes for a better scallop harvest in 2009, based on reports from baymen friends who have seen “lots” of juveniles in the water this year. This infusion of additional scallops provide a further reproductive boost.

“Hopefully they’ll survive the winter and next June, July and August they’ll spawn,” said Grothe.

By JENNIFER SMITH
Newsday

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Natural Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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