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Featured Story
11/25/18 6:00am
11/25/2018 6:00 AM

One offshoot of running a company that’s been in the shellfish business for 90 years is aquatic and historical clutter. Ken Homan’s office at Braun Seafood in Cutchogue is an archive of shellfishing ephemera and Native American history, a collection that feels like a room at the American Museum of Natural History.

Ken’s father, 90-year-old Jim Homan, who headed the company for over 50 years, is a firsthand witness to the 20th-century history of scalloping on the East End. Mr. Homan took over an oyster shack started in 1928 by George Braun and turned it into one of the largest seafood distributors on the East End. Peconic bay scallops had a lot to do with that.

“The oyster business was going to hell,” said Jim Homan. “I wouldn’t say we ‘got into’ scallops. You only get into scallops when the scallops are here to get into. There were a few in the late ’50s, and they really hit ’em in the ’60s and the ’70s,” he said. “We used to fly them out — a fleet of planes going up to New England, with 13 five-gallon cans on a single engine and 26 cans on double-engine plane.”

Foraged food as economic engine

Bay scallops have been an important food on eastern Long Island as long as there have been creatures to gather and eat them. The archaeological evidence that Late Woodland period Native Americans ate scallops is extensive. Large numbers of scallop shells have been discovered in middens on Robins Island, Shelter Island, Orient and other sites.

The first evidence of commercial scalloping on the North Fork comes from newspaper accounts of local people in 1857 observing a boat from Connecticut harvesting scallops just northeast of Robins Island. By December 1873, commercial scalloping was local and a Southold newspaper reported that scallops from New Suffolk were taken to Port Jefferson by wagon and sold for 3 cents per quart. In the 1880s, a U.S. Fish Commission Report described scallop shacks in New Suffolk. “Piles to the height of 8 or 10 feet and covering a quarter of an acre were alongside the opening houses,” the report reads.

On Dec. 2, 1884, Charles Congdon of Shelter Island sold several gallons of scallops to John Elsey, a New York seafood distributor. The sale took place just after the railroad linked New York City and Greenport in July 1884, establishing a vital link in the supply chain. Now there was same-day delivery of bay scallops to the enormous New York market.

For the next 100 years, scalloping was an important factor in the East End economy. A newspaper account in the archives of Oysterponds Historical Society describes a bed of scallops found off Bayview in 1899, from which baymen took anywhere from 30 to 60 bushels a day. In February 1900, thousands of bushels of scallops washed up on the south shore of Peconic Bay. “The baymen shoveled them like pebbles and carried them off in double arm loads,” reads a handwritten account in the society’s CA Wood Collection.

Jim Homan remembers selling bay scallops to many New York restaurants during the 1960s, including Sardi’s, the 21 Club and Luchow’s. They were often fried, sometimes “half and half” — a mixed fry of oysters and scallops — or served broiled with bacon. On a Tuesday in February 1965, Luchow’s offered “Bay Scallops à la Poulette en Casserole with Long Grain Rice Pilaff” for $2.65, according to a menu in the collection of the New York Public Library.

Scallopers on Peconic Bay in the late 1970s or early 1980s. (NYSDEC photo)

How to get ‘a mess of scallops’

Gathering scallops decades ago involved a bayman pulling a dredge — an iron frame with a bag attached — along the bottom of the bay from a sailboat, at least until outboard motors became common in the late 1950s.

Some baymen working today still use dredges handmade by Paul “the Blacksmith” Nossolik, who worked for 60 years near the waterfront in Greenport. Keith Clark of Shelter Island remembers visiting Mr. Nossolik in his shop. “His fingers were black and there was soft coal all around the shop up to your knees,” he said. “You came out of there smelling like a smoked eel.”

Hoot Sherman, Shelter Island supervisor in the early ’80s, said the opening of scallop season completely dominated the life of the town in the days when the harvests were huge. “Every year for the first weeks after opening day, I couldn’t find anybody to work the ferry,” he said. “They were all out scalloping.” Children missed school to go scalloping and everyone who could hold a scallop knife spent afternoons opening at one of the many scallop shacks on the island.

Bay scallops have to be opened the day they are taken because, unlike oysters, their shells don’t close and they spoil quickly. “If we had scallops like in the ’60s, we wouldn’t have enough baymen to catch them,” Jim Homan said. “And there wouldn’t be any way to open them. Then, everyone had an opening shop.”

A 1949 photo of Alfred Tuthill in a catboat, the scallopers’ vessel of choice at the time, on Peconic Bay. (Shelter Island Historical Society photo)

A brush with extinction

In 1985, a devastating die-off caused by harmful algae blooms signaled the beginning of a death spiral that brought the Peconic Bay scallop close to extinction. Since baymen take adult scallops at the end of their life cycle, overfishing has never been a significant factor in the decline of the bay scallop population. The problem was fueled by water pollution, an increase in predators and environmental changes that affected the scallop’s habitat. In 1996, the entire annual scallop harvest for New York State was nine bushels.

Scallop season, which had opened in September for as long as anyone could remember, was pushed back to the first Monday in October and then, in 2005, to the first Monday in November to allow the few remaining scallops more time to spawn. In 2006, a reseeding program headed by Stephen Tettelbach at Long Island University began to support wild bay scallop populations by planting millions of larval scallops in the Peconic estuary.

Jim Homan has a sure-fire method to assess the health of the bay scallop populations, based on the fact that the sweet morsels are as tempting to seagulls as they are to chefs.

“When you go past the floating docks and you see them all full of scallop shells, you know there are scallops in the creek,” he said.

While not back to the bountiful harvests of the ’70s and early ’80s, scallop numbers have increased over the last decade, and bay scallops are still an important part of many a North Fork holiday table. Ken Homan, who has a keen interest in Native American history, said he likes to make a stuffing with bay scallops, a Thanksgiving tradition that’s probably a lot closer to what Native Americans and colonists were actually eating than roasted turkey.

Top photo caption: Ken Homan (left) and his father, Jim, at Braun Seafood in Cutchogue. (Charity Robey photo)

North Fork History Project

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

Part V: Slavery, an ignored part of our history

Part VI: Slavery on Shelter Island, a story not hidden away

Part VII: When was Cutchogue’s Old House built?

Part VIII: The Revolution ‘tore families apart’

Part IX: For one loyalist, all would be lost

Part X: From growing divisions within Southold, River Head town is born

Part XI: An epic saga of East End whaling

Part XII: Murders in 1854 shattered a hamlet

Part XIII: The Wickham murders part two

Part XIV: A Civil War on the North Fork

Part XVI: Shelter Island’s place in Quaker history

Part XVII: 80 years ago, no one saw the Hurricane of 1938 coming

Part XVIII: 100 years ago, peace came at the 11th Hour

Featured Story
11/12/16 9:00am
11/12/2016 9:00 AM

scallop3

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.

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03/30/15 2:59pm
03/30/2015 2:59 PM
Gary Joyce of Aquebogue (left) and Ed Densieski of Riverhead sort through a catch. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

Gary Joyce of Aquebogue (left) and Ed Densieski of Riverhead sort through a catch. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

There is a silver lining to the prolonged winter for local fishermen and seafood lovers: Bay scallop season has been extended an extra month to help area fishermen recoup losses contributed to the brutally cold weather.

(more…)

11/07/14 12:01pm
11/07/2014 12:01 PM
Gary Joyce of Aquebogue (left) and Ed Densieski of Riverhead sort through a catch. They said they often throw away more empty scallop shells than healthy keepers. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Gary Joyce of Aquebogue (left) and Ed Densieski of Riverhead sort through a catch. They said they often throw away more empty scallop shells than healthy keepers. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Early Monday morning, under cover of darkness and beneath a star-lit sky, Ed Densieski and Gary Joyce boarded their custom-outfitted boat, dressed head to toe in vibrant all-weather gear.

Unfazed by the blustery chill, the pair headed out through Southold Bay, with Brick Cove Marina at their backs.

It was the start of their 16th scalloping season and, as Mr. Densieski said, “There’s only one opening day.”  (more…)

06/22/12 7:00pm
06/22/2012 7:00 PM

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Cornell Cooperative Extension and Empire State Development Corporation staff toss adult scallops into the Peconic Bay off Cedar Beach Friday afternoon. The state recently awarded a $182,000 grant to the project.

The folks working to rebuild the stock of Peconic Bay scallops have a new best friend in the state government.

Researchers at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Peconic Bay scallop restoration program, based at Cornell’s Cedar Beach, Southold, marine laboratory, had a special visit Friday afternoon from Kenneth Adams, commissioner of the Empire State Development Corporation. The corporation awarded a $182,000 grant earlier this year toward the continuing scallop project.

Lead researchers Dr. Stephen Tettelbach of Long Island University and Dr. Chris Smith of Cornell said they’ve used the funds to expand the hatchery and hire additional employees to help grow scallops to full size in the lab.

“We’ve increased production in our hatchery,” said Dr. Tettelbach. “We plan to grow the scallops from spring to market size in the fall. This is the first time it’s being done in New York State. Other states are selling cultured scallops.”

Dr. Tettelbach said the scallops, which are smaller than wild scallops, will likely be sold whole in the shell.

“It’s a different way of marketing, a different market niche,” he said.

Since scallops are short-lived, usually living no more than two years, their contribution to the population is limited to one spawning season.

Dr. Smith said program researchers have also used grant funds to expand their long-line grow-out system in Orient Harbor. In that system, scallop larvae collect on a mesh surface inside an aerated bag that protects them from predators. Initially, researchers were using the bags, known as spat collectors, as a tool to quantify the number of scallops in the bay. They’re now using them as nurseries for scallops cultivated by humans.

“We’re now using Japanese techniques where you use spat collectors to produce numbers of scallops,” he said. “It’s increasing our capability of spawning and growing scallops.”

Mr. Adams said his office had received marching orders from Governor Andrew Cuomo to provide $785 million in grants by asking regional Economic Development Corporations for advice on the most crucial projects in their areas, instead of having the state dictate where the money would go. More than 700 grants were awarded.

Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council and a former head of the Long Island Power Authority, brought the scallop project to Mr. Adams’ attention.

“This is an incredible, historical, vital natural asset,” Mr. Adams said of the scallop fishery. “Fisheries are a very important part of the regional economy. How would I know about this project sitting back in Albany?

“It really worked well,” he added. “I’d like to think this is the beginning of a long and healthy relationship.”

“I think scallops brought us over the line,” Mr. Law said Friday afternoon at a ceremony on a barge overlooking the laboratory. “Everybody had high tech, but nobody else had scallops.”

Dr. Smith estimated that the scallop industry, which had a negligible economic value for years after the brown tide destroyed the fishery in 1985, brought $3 million in economic activity to the region in 2010 after his research team helped to rebuild the fishery. He estimated the 2010 numbers were about 10 percent of the value of the industry before the brown tide hit.

Dr. Smith said his group hopes to continue building the number of scallops in the bays until there are three to five scallops per square meter on the bottom.

“I think we’re within a few years of that,” he said.

“Can you do lobsters next?” asked Mr. Adams.

“Lobsters are a whole different story,” said Dr. Smith.

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