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For scallop lovers, the season begins poorly

When the bay scallop season opened in New York State waters Monday, there were few surprises. Keith Reda, general manager at Braun Seafood Company in Cutchogue, summed it up: “I heard through the grapevine that this wasn’t going to be a great year. A lot of guys did not go; there are things they can do that are more lucrative.” 

For the few Peconic Bay scallops Braun’s had to sell, the price was $39 a pound, about twice the price on opening day in 2018, but about $10 a pound less than fresh bay scallops from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

The urge to fish for wild Peconic Bay scallops on opening day only makes sense to people who remember when bay scallops washed up in mounds on the beach when the wind blew hard. A time when you might skip school or call in sick to go scalloping because you could buy a new truck and buy Christmas presents with the proceeds. Those days are 30 years gone. 

For four years in a row, a raft of troubles, mostly caused by a warming climate, have killed adult bay scallops in local waters. In 2022, most of the adult scallop population died suddenly during the summer, putting every bayman on alert that this November, there would be no miraculous comeback.

Over the decades, the town dock at Congdon Creek on Shelter Island has been the beating heart of scalloping, especially on opening day. But this Monday morning, a few minutes before sunrise, a large heron was the only fisher in sight. 

Keith Clark is one of those who remember the days when every dredge he pulled was full of scallops. He and his wife, Louise Clark, made it out a little after sunrise. “Probably futile, but we’ll go take a look,” he said. 

A few minutes later, Jim Hayward, owner of Commander Cody’s Seafood on Shelter Island, and Chuck Kraus turned up, but not to go scalloping. They were going for blackfish. “Hey, that’s the life of a fisherman,” Mr. Hayward said. “If one thing doesn’t work, the other one will do.”

Two more fishermen arrived at the dock, a quorum was reached and the fish talk began.

“Look at all those peanut bunkers, I’m going to see if I can get some. Good bait.”

“I’m not sure if I should fish or not. It’s windy out there.”

“Chris has his boat out on Daniel Lord Road, said he’s going out by Shell Beach.” 

“Wayne knows where to go.”

“Yeah, I know where to go. Back to bed.”

A few minutes later, Wayne and Donna King set off to search for the traditional November dinner: “a mess of scallops.” 

All returned safely, enjoying highs in the 70s but in possession of few scallops. The Clarks took home two bags to shuck, and the Kings had enough for dinner.

You don’t have to be a bayman to have heard the melancholy news about this year’s bay scallop harvest. Even the customers seem to know that there won’t be many. Mr. Reda said that in past years, scallop lovers would fill the store and some would call the store on opening day and reserve four or five pounds so they could freeze them. This year it’s been a lot quieter.

Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, left his store around 1 p.m. on opening day, still hopeful that the supply could improve later in the season, which extends through the end of March. “The real fishermen are going to stick to conching and fishing as long as they can, and then switch over to scallops in December, like they did last year. We had scallops in December, but almost nothing in November.”

And then, as he has done for the past four years on bay scallop opening day, Mr. Manwaring went hunting.