This year’s bay scallop season has been amazingly abundant. Some say the best in 10 years, some say even longer than that.
The scallops have been especially large, with delicate sweet flesh. Many baymen have been catching their limit in just a few hours, with some fish markets putting out a call for extra shuckers just to keep up.
It is said that, once upon a time, the local bay scallops were so plentiful and supported so many baymen, that you could walk from boat to boat in just about any cove in the Great Peconic Bay. There may be the scent of a fish tale in that story but it is true that bay scallops have historically had a large role in the economy of the East End.
So why now, this season, have the scallops been so numerous? Our waters are under great pressure from the nitrogen loading, road run-off and too many poorly maintained septic systems, which has contributed to the collapse of eelgrass that hosts scallops. This year’s harvest seems to run contrary to those impediments. So what has happened?
Many speculate it is about water quality. Billy Doroski, manager of The Seafood Shop in Wainscott says, “There was a good water quality this year with minimum amounts of the brown and red tides.” He went on to say, “The coolness of the weather is probably a part of it. When the water stays cooler, it keeps the algae blooms down and it is the algae that hurts the scallop population, that and the low numbers of predators such as crabs and starfish.” Doroski went on to say the baymen who supply The Seafood Shop are also reporting good spawning and that bodes well for next year’s crop.
Argopecten irradians, our local bay scallops, live for a year to 18 months. They are bivalves, meaning they have two shells, and they hold those two shells together with an abductor muscle, the delicious part you eat. They have 18 eyes distributed around the ruffled edge of the bill with which they can see shadows of the world around them. This is especially useful for detecting the presence of predators. Perhaps the clarity of the water this year has helped to strengthen their population by allowing better visibility, and, thus an increased chance to escape from predators.
If you are looking to harvest your own scallops, they will most likely be found in the shallow coastal waters of bays and estuaries, as they prefer brackish water. They love muddy bottoms and eelgrass—so when you pull them up they are typically covered in mud. There is a little skill needed to shuck them. Once you get them open, it’s easy to take your thumbnail once around the abductor muscle, removing everything but the muscle and there you have it, a glistening morsel, a gift from the waters, offering the best satisfaction of eating locally.
If you want to harvest scallops, keep in mind, they need to be at least 2 1/4” from the middle of their winged hinge to the middle of their bill. Although The Seafood Shop reports that volume has begun to slow down compared to the beginning of the season, there are still plenty if you want to brave the winter waters.
The scallop season begins the first Monday of November and continues through to the last day in March. There are recreational and commercial catch limits. There are harvest area maps certified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In addition to state rules, each town has rules in order to protect this wonderful resource.
The answer to the question of why this year’s harvest has been so plentiful is probably a combination of factors; the cooler waters not being favorable to the red and brown tide blooms. Maybe the reseeding programs of 2005 and 2006, along with efforts to replant eelgrass, are producing results. Or, perhaps better management and regulations of shell fishing, and maybe even the efforts to curtail nitrogen loading and road run-off, have all played a part. Whatever the magic combination has been, it has been a great bumper crop year for bay scallops—enjoy them!