While baymen across most of eastern Long Island are muddling through what is sure to be chalked up as a mediocre and thoroughly disappointing bay scallop harvest, East Hampton’s baymen and recreational shellfish harvesters are enjoying a banner harvest in one small harbor alone—a bounty of the likes not seen in most reaches of the East End in three decades.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said East Hampton Town Trustee Joe Bloecker after returning from scalloping in Napeague Harbor one recent morning. “When you just go out there with your looking box, there’s a scallop every 6 to 12 inches. The last time it was like that anywhere was 25 years ago.”
Since East Hampton Town waters opened to scalloping on November 19, a week later than normal due to temporary water quality issues caused by Hurricane Sandy, Napeague Harbor has nearly on its own sustained the commercial harvest for dozens of local baymen and dozens, perhaps hundreds, more residents picking up a basketful of the beloved shellfish for their dinner tables. Napeague Harbor is open only to town residents.
On a recent morning, at about 9 a.m., there were six boats working with their two-man commercial crews dragging iron dredges along the southern end of the harbor, and another eight individuals wading near the shallow western shoreline of Lazy Point. Several crews of baymen had already picked up their daily harvest limits and were loading their boats to head for their shucking sheds, while others were just arriving for their day’s chore.
“Usually first thing in the morning there’s anywhere from 12 to 15 boats and then there’s guys coming in and out all day long,” said Jeremiah Overton, a commercial harvester setting out to tow dredges with another bayman. “They’re still pulling limits in an hour. It’s been, what, three weeks, a month?”
A commercial harvester is allowed five bushels of scallops per day, 10 bushels per two-man boat—with about 250 scallops per bushel. The boats usually pull four to eight dredges at a time, the crew constantly pulling dredges on either side and emptying the contents onto a sorting rack to cull out keepers from next year’s harvest.
The downside to the bounty, baymen lamented this week, is that there has been a glut in the market in the last week and the price offered to harvesters by seafood shops has dropped from as high as more than $20 per pound to as low as just $6 per pound. Some baymen have argued that just the abundance in one small part of one town could not be to blame for the plummeting scallop prices, but were at a loss to explain the market fluctuation.
“They started off at $24 a pound—I sold some last week and they gave me $8 and it’s lower than that now I believe,” said Fred Havens, 77, as he loaded up a single bushel of scallops he’d gathered while wading the flats of Napeague Harbor this week. “I try to sell a few when they’ll take them, but they’ve got so many now most of mine are going in my freezer.”
Perhaps the most astounding, and most sobering, consideration to come from the resurgence of scallops in Napeague is that, until about six weeks ago, it was widely believed that almost all of the East End’s waters would be seeing a similar staggering abundance.
Last spring, baymen and scientists reported that what appeared to be the largest “set” of young-of-the-year baby scallops in decades had blossomed across the bottoms of the Peconics and Gardiners Bay and nearly all of their tributary coves and harbors. Many said it signaled the official recovery of the bay scallop from the devastation wreaked by the “brown tide” algae blooms of the 1980s and early 1990s.
But in October, scientists surveying bay bottoms found that an estimated 90 percent of the scallops they’d seen the prior spring appeared to have died over the summer. The fact that those baymen prospecting in many of the coves still found some adult scallops among huge piles of shells of the dead is a testament to just how many scallops there had actually been before the summer.
Back in Napeague, many of those lugging bags of scallops to their trucks were optimistic that at least this one isolated horn of plenty was not about to run dry in the immediate future either.
Unlike in Southampton Town, where only Cold Spring Pond held a substantial enough number of scallops to sustain a focused commercial harvest for more than a few days, most of East Hampton’s other water bodies seem to have at least modest supplies of scallops also. Healthy harvests in Three Mile Harbor, Accabonac and Lake Montauk have thinned the crowds in Napeague somewhat as some sought to stay closer to home and broad stretches of bottom in the harbor do not appear to have even been touched by dredges, rakes or scoop nets yet.