The fall harvest is winding down on the North Fork. Grapes have been picked and are fermenting, pumpkins have been carved and apples have been turned into delicious pies and warm cider.
But for our local baymen and seafood lovers, another highly anticipated harvest has just begun — the opening of bay scallop season.
The bay scallop (Argopecten irradians) is a bivalve mollusk, meaning it belongs to a class of mollusks that have two valves or shells. The coloration of these shells varies greatly among individuals. They can be found in dull shades of browns and grays to brilliant shades of reddish-browns and oranges. These colors are accented by the shell’s symmetrical shape with many ridges radiating outward from the center of the shell’s hinge. The beauty of a scallop shell has them sought after by shell collectors, and in 1988 New York officially named the bay scallop the state shell.
A bay scallop’s beauty does not stop at the shell. They have at least 18 pairs of the prettiest, brightest blue eyes you have ever seen. Looking like small gemstones, each eye is fairly well-developed and is capable of detecting movement and shadows of potential predators. Their keen eyesight can make photographing them quite difficult, as they often close their shell just as I am about to squeeze the shutter. If I am patient and remain still, they will slowly open back up once they feel that the danger has passed. Sadly, consumers rarely see these beautiful eyes. They are discarded along with the mantle, gills and other innards long before they reach the seafood market. The large abductor muscle is all that is kept when cleaning scallops. The opposite is true with clams, mussels and oysters, where the abductor muscle is normally left behind, as it can be tough and chewy.
This large powerful muscle, aside from being delicious, allows scallops to be much more mobile than their kin. For most shellfish, once they settle on a piece of bottom, they stay put for the remainder of their life. A scallop, on the other hand, is able to “swim” away from a potential predator by clapping its shell by quickly contracting its large abductor muscle. They might not be as graceful as a fish swimming away, but it is enough to escape a hungry predator such as a crab or sea star.
At one time, Long Island was considered a top harvester of bay scallops, with the Great Peconic Bay being one of the top producers. In 1985, this flourishing fishery collapsed when local bays were plagued with the first appearance of the brown tide. A brown tide is caused when a single-celled algae (Aureococcus anophagefferens) blooms to such densities that it causes the water to become dark brown in color. The growth of this harmful algal bloom is fueled by excess nitrogen that enters our bays through manmade activities such as the use of fertilizers, outdated sewage treatment plants and home septic systems. As bloom densities increase, the water becomes darker, keeping sunlight from reaching the bay bottom. Plants such as eelgrass, which are vital to the survival of scallops, die off under these conditions. Juvenile scallops settle on eelgrass blades through the use of byssal threads. This attachment keeps them out of reach of benthic predators such as crabs. As scallops mature, they drop from the blade, but remain within the protection of the eelgrass meadow. Vast meadows of eelgrass are not only crucial for the survival of scallops, but also just about every species of fish, crustacean and mollusk we enjoy.
Fortunately, bay scallops are short-lived animals, maturing by year one and only living for two. This short life allows aquaculture facilities to not only raise bay scallops for food, but also for the purpose of reseeding local scallop populations. Although bay scallops can be raised in these aquaculture settings, we will never see a return of bay scallop populations to their historic levels if we do not first restore the health of our bays.
The author is a marine biologist and the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. His column appears monthly on northforker.com. A version of this column was originally published on the site last November.
Photo: A Peconic Bay scallop in its natural habitat. (Credit: Chris Paparo/Fishguy)