Long Island Scallop Harvesting Fallen on Hard Times
By Rupert Deedes
Scallop fishing has a long and storied history around Long Island. Native American tribes were the first to harvest scallops in the area, relying on them as a staple food source. As European settlers arrived in the 17th century, they too recognized the rich scallop beds around Long Island. Scallop fishing became an important industry, providing both sustenance and economic opportunities for local communities.
In the early 20th century, advancements in technology led to changes in scallop fishing practices. Motorized boats and mechanical dredges were introduced, allowing for larger-scale operations and increased efficiency. This led to a boom in the industry, with scallops from Long Island becoming highly sought after in markets across the country.
By the middle of the 20th century, the new technologies, which led to overfishing, joined with environmental issues to cause the scallop numbers to decline significantly. In response, the federal, state, and local governments began to implement various conservation measures, such as size limits, seasonal closures, and restrictions on fishing methods.
More steps have been taken in recent years to restore and sustain the scallop population around Long Island. Hatcheries have been established to cultivate and release juvenile scallops into the wild, and fishing methods have been improved.
These conservation efforts, along with improved fishing practices, have shown promising results in terms of the recovery of the scallop population. The stricter regulations and a greater focus on sustainability have helped, but fishermen say the situation is still dire.
The case of Peconic Bay is but one example. Recently the New York Times reported that most of the adult scallops in Peconic Bay are dead. They died in 2019, and nobody knew exactly why. They died again the following year — about 98 percent of all the adult scallops — and most of them died every year since then.
“For fishermen on Shelter Island, a scallop season without scallops comes as no surprise,” the Times writes. “A great harvest in 1894 was followed by a bust the following year, when locals blamed outsiders for overfishing. Hurricanes destroyed the scallop beds in 1938 and 1954. A shortage of eelgrass habitat depressed scallop populations for much of the 1930s; an overabundance of algae nearly killed bay scallops off entirely in 1985 and again in 1995.”
Stephen Tettelbach, a shellfish ecologist with Cornell, told the Times that the current die-off is no less severe, but it may last longer than any that came before. Scallops can survive the bay’s rising water temperatures caused by warming seas, Tettelbach said, and they can survive the arrival of a new parasite, or they can survive the normal stress of spawning. “But most cannot survive all three.”
As result, Peconic Bay scallops spawn by the millions, but they then die before they reach harvestable age and size.
The U.S. scallop-fishing industry has implemented several sustainability practices to ensure the long-term health of scallop populations. Here are some of them:
1. Size Limits: The industry follows strict size limits, which specify the minimum size at which scallops can be harvested. This helps in protecting juvenile scallops and allows them to reach reproductive maturity before being harvested.
2. Catch Limits: The U.S. government sets catch limits for scallop fishing to prevent overfishing. These limits ensure that only a certain amount of scallops can be harvested each year, allowing the population to replenish and maintain a sustainable level.
3. Fishing Area Management: The industry employs fishing-area closures and rotational management practices. These measures help protect sensitive areas and allow scallop beds to recover. By periodically closing specific fishing areas, scallops get the opportunity to grow and reproduce undisturbed.
4. Gear Innovations: Technological advancements in fishing gear have played a significant role in promoting sustainability. The use of more selective gear, such as dredges with escape rings, helps minimize bycatch and reduces the impact on non-target species.
5. Scientific Research and Monitoring: The U.S. scallop-fishing industry collaborates with scientists and researchers to conduct studies on scallop populations, habitats, and ecosystem dynamics. This data is used to inform management decisions and ensure the sustainability of the fishery.
6. Industry Collaboration: Scallop fishermen actively participate in industry organizations and councils that work towards sustainable fishing practices. These groups collaborate with government agencies, scientists, and conservation organizations to develop and implement effective management strategies.