Editorial: Following bay scallop die-off, what's next?

When bay scallop season opened last month, the worst fears of baymen who are experienced observers of marine life in our waters were confirmed: There weren’t any.

Somehow these highly prized bay scallops, known worldwide as the very best, were gone from one of the most fertile scallop waters anywhere on the East Coast. A massive, nearly total die-off had occurred. Experts at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County said 90 to 100% of adult scallops died between last spring and this fall.

If these little beauties are canaries in the coal mine, warning us of further marine changes to come, we should all be deeply concerned. Among the plausible causes of the die-off, experts have told us, are rising water temperatures in our shallow bays and low dissolved oxygen levels. Experts do not think some unknown disease is the culprit. What is certain is this: Over the past summer, water temperatures in part of the western end of the Peconic Bay reached as high as 85 degrees. That’s nuts. That’s a temperature you would experience vacationing on a tropical island, not here in the Northeast.

Last year when the season opened, Braun Seafood in Cutchogue was hopping, with teams of people opening scallops and getting them into the market and to dozens of restaurants. On that opening day, something like 300 bushels of scallops arrived at Braun; this year, maybe five bushels were brought in. On a recent Saturday morning in the Braun market, a woman stood at the counter buying up what little were available. She said she had driven from Massachusetts to buy them, adding that there were none available on Cape Cod.

Our local bay scallop landings in 2017 and 2018 were valued at about $1.5 million to commercial scallops alone. Factor in the economic multipliers off of this fishery, and the number increases enormously.

Where do we go from here? Is this a one-year event or the start of a long-running trend in our bays? If so, what can be done about it?

The words “climate change” irritates a certain segment of the population. They don’t believe in it because they are told not to believe in it, and they believe the people who told them, regardless of how inane their pronouncements are. It’s also true that thousands of people are members of flat Earth societies. Photographs of the Earth show our home planet is round. The flat Earth people say they don’t believe the photographic evidence. Stupid is as stupid does, as someone in a movie once said.

It’s a matter of fact that dramatic changes in the marine ecology — from water temperatures to rising sea levels — are already underway. They are happening right in front of us. Because of its shape, the North Fork will experience dramatic changes as sea levels continue to rise. Last week, The Washington Post published a story showing that massive amounts of melting are now taking place in the Greenland ice sheet, the biggest contributor worldwide to sea level rise.

“The researchers observed a sudden, partial draining of the lake they termed ‘lake 028’ during a span of five hours on July 7, 2018,” the story read. “At its peak, the lake was draining the equivalent of one Olympic-size swimming pool every three seconds… To put it differently, the meltwater was enough to fill one U.S. Capitol rotunda every two minutes and 19 seconds.”

As of last August, Greenland had already shed something like 250 billion tons of water, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. The center said that, during one week in August, “Greenland lost from 12 billion to 24 billion tons of ice per day, which was about 6 to 18 billion tons above the typical rates seen on these dates during the period from 1981-2010.”

Perhaps it is time for the trustees in the five East End towns to prepare maps of the region showing what various stages of sea level rise at normal, non-storm high tides will look like and what land will be covered. Think of the tens of millions of dollars in real estate that could be impacted. With these maps, once again, the evidence of what is coming will be right before our eyes.