Chefs, baymen and seafood aficionados up and down the East Coast will tell you that without a doubt, nothing matches the flavor of a freshly-plucked-from-the-sea Long Island bay scallop. Bite-sized, tender morsels, light in flavor and delicious raw or seared, scallops come packaged by Mother Nature in a beautiful fluted shell and are a prized offering on any menu.
That is, if you can find them any more.
In 1986, a brown tide decimated Long Island’s bay scallop population along with their eelgrass habitat. Since that fateful year, scallops have been unable to rebound: harvests have been less than 1% of their historical levels and eelgrass beds have not re-colonized in areas west of Shelter Island.
The Nature Conservancy, in concert with towns, baymen and agency officials, has been working since 2002 to restore the bay scallop population of the Peconic Estuary back to historic levels – both for the benefit of human appetite and for the health of the Peconic. Today, the strategy seems to be paying off.
No Scallop Left Behind
The Nature Conservancy began the restoration project by growing scallops at the Mashomack Preserve. Here, juvenile scallops were given a headstart, where they could mature safely, free from human hands and natural predators. When they reached a large enough size, the scallops were distributed into the Peconic Estuary and Shinnecock Bay. To date, the Conservancy has raised and released approximately 2.1 million bay scallops.
The Conservancy, through its conservation site planning process, also identified actions that could assist the restoration project. Management discussions with commercial fisherman and the NYS-DEC were held in 2004 and a series of recommendations were developed:
- Delay the start of the scallop season from the first Monday in October to the first Monday in November. Scallops at different sites in the Peconics spawned into the fall months. Recommendations were made to allow for a “second spawning” before being harvested.
- Size limits and restrictions. Limit harvest to only scallops that have an annual growth line and measure 2 1/4 inches or more. It was agreed that the law needs to be changed to allow all individuals a chance to spawn.
- Oyster toadfish restoration and management. Predation by crabs on shellfish is a huge hurdle in trying to increase shellfish populations in the estuary. Oyster toad-fish (a major predator of crabs) were heavily fished in the mid-1990s resulting in a dramatic reduction in their population. The group recommended that the harvest of oyster toadfish be severely restricted.
A Shelled Success
The recommended actions were put into place before the 2005 bay scallop season. The NYS-DEC harvest data for the 2004 scallop season indicated that 2200 lbs. of scallops were harvested. By 2007, the harvest increased to 6600 lbs. and by 2008 the harvest increased to 9600 lbs. It is possible that 2009 harvest may double the 2008 harvest!