Climate Change Is Most Likely to Blame for This Year’s Peconic Bay Scallop Harvest

peconic bay scallops

This year’s Peconic Bay scallop harvest was a nightmare for local baymen—and perhaps a sign of what’s to come. • Photo by Randee Daddona

Climate change is here.

Let that statement roll around in your head for a minute. The predictions were right—but they were conservative. The sustained damage to the environment that we have been waiting for has already arrived, and, this year on Long Island, it arrived in the form of a massive bay scallop die-off. Will these scallops return to the Peconic? Or will ongoing changes to the environment create an inhospitable home for the delicate bivalves. The data does not look good.

As other outlets like The New York Times have reported, 2019 was the worst bay scallop season since the catastrophic 1985 brown tide. A few days ago, the Peconic Estuary Program issued a statement attributing the die-off to global warming. “Temperature is a very crucial aspect of water quality,” ecologist Carl Safina said. The temperature, he noted, has been steadily rising over time. “That has already cost us some fish and shellfish.”

When it comes to losing a species, there is precedent. In 1998, the Long Island Sound suffered a lobster die-off. That die-off, Mr. Safina said, has been “marching eastward, northward, and deeper in the last couple of decades.” Long Island was once home to tomcod, a small, coastal codfish. Like pollack and rainbow smelt, the tomcod has migrated, seeking cooler waters. The range of abundance is changing, too. “Black seabass, which we’ve had my whole lifetime—they’re becoming crazy abundant here,” Mr. Safina said. Black seabass is native to the Carolinas. Other fish, like striped bass, are showing up in large numbers farther north than they ever used to.

Scientists prefer not to cast doomsday predictions. Methodical and cautious by professional nature, the two scientists I spoke to were more comfortable theorizing than they were concluding. Still, both Carl Safina and Michael Doall—Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences’ Senior Research Support Specialist—felt that temperature changes could be responsible for this year’s bay scallop bust.

“One thing we know about climate change,” Mr. Doall said, “[is that], in addition to a gradual increase in ocean temperature, we have more extremes. The timing of those extremes, when you look at the reproductive cycle of a bay scallop, can be very important. [M]ost of the evidence right now suggests that it’s temperature stress on post-spawned scallops [that caused the 2019 die-off], and this could be a sign of climate change.”

Mr. Safina’s take was, perhaps, more dire. “If this die-off is temperature-related, as it seems, then this will no longer be a place where bay scallops can live in the future,” he said. “Climate change has been here for a couple of decades, at least. The days when it was a prediction ended by the late 90s. My best friend was a full-time lobster fisherman The news that it’s already here arrived in 1998 for him, and, therefore, for me.”

Read more: The Last Continent Will Be the First to Go

As shellfish go, the bay scallop is particularly susceptible to sweeping environmental change. A bay scallop’s life cycle spans about 18 months. During that time, they spawn—often only once. After the spawn, they die. The New York bay scallop season, which opens on the first of November each year, is designed to complement that natural cycle. Since post-spawn, adult scallops typically die in the winter, the harvest catches them in the window between reproduction and death, guaranteeing a future population for the next year. The brevity of the life cycle means, Mr. Doall said, increased unpredictability. “If you have a bad year, for any reason, you’ll have these big fluctuations in scallop abundance,” he said. “That’s just the way the bay scallop’s life cycle is.”

To hear the baymen tell it, scallop fishing was already a dying practice. • Photo by Tara Israel

Consider, then, the 1985 brown tide, an algae bloom, which decreased available oxygen, thereby killing the majority of the local bay scallops. That singular event set in motion three decades of diminished returns. “It crushed the bay scallop population,” Mr. Doall said. “Even though bay scallops have been coming back in recent years, it’s far short of where the bay scallop fishery was before 1985. It’s probably at least a number of times lower than it was in 1985.”

To hear the baymen tell it, scallop fishing was already a dying practice. In addition to the brown tide, an eel-grass problem in the early 1980s reconfigured the ecology of the bay. Thirteenth-generation East Hampton bayman Nat Miller regards his trade soberly. “There’s no East End fishermen left,” he said. “I’m 40-years-old. I have two kids and a mortgage, and I can only think of two or three [who are] younger than me in East Hampton. To rely on scallop money every year… it’s always been a bonus. But I’m going to rely on clams this year. Are the clams going to die off next? I don’t know.”

Clams could, of course, be next. Anything could. In June, the Australia-based Breakthrough National Center for Climate Restoration released a paper offering probable scenarios regarding global climate change within the next 30 years. Should ocean temperatures rise by two degrees, the Center estimates a loss of 8 percent of the world’s vertebrates. Pair this with the research released in late October by the science organization Climate Central—which asserted that rising seas will displace 150 million people by 2050—and you have a recipe for species annihilation. And these predictions are only predictions: the truth could be far worse. “Most scientists’ predictions about climate trends are pretty conservative, and most of what we’ve seen has come earlier and worse than the mid-range of most predictions,” Mr. Safina said.

Fishermen have felt the effects of changes to the ecosystem for years. “I think its heyday is over,” Nat Miller said. “Whether it’s environmental reasons or political reasons, there’s no future. Most of the baymen left now aren’t full-time guys, because they can’t afford to keep fishing.” There is other speculation about this year’s die-off, and about what it means for the future of scallop fishing—and other fishing—on Long Island. Mr. Miller believes that the increased East End population has done damage to coastal waters. “There’s a lot of man-made troubles,” he said. “Until people start changing their habits, I don’t think you’re going to see a change in the environment.”

There’s some truth to this theory, Michael Doall said. Increased nitrogen in the water can cause algae blooms and depleted oxygen, two factors that can cause shellfish die-offs. “Excessive nitrogen entering our estuaries is probably the biggest water quality problem we’re facing on Long Island right now,” he said. “The biggest source comes from septic waste. It could be a source of stress for shellfish.” But, he stressed, septic waste and nitrogen in the estuaries does not appear to be the reason for this year’s bust. “I would lean more toward temperature stress,” he said, relative to 2019.

“[I]f I was going to guess,” Carl Safina said, “I would say that there probably will be some decent years to come. There may be some great years to come… but it will not be an improving trend.” • Photo by Tara Israel

What this year paints is an ugly picture. Species migrations of the past, Mr. Doall said, are “clear evidence of climate change.” And erratic temperatures, like we saw in July and August, are more deadly to scallops than systemic warming patterns. Erratic temperatures, of course, are also related to a changing climate, and so the scallop die-off points to what we may expect in the future: An eastern Long Island with no bay scallops at all. “It’s not crazy to think that the population will become inhospitable to scallops,” Michael Doall said. “We could lose populations here.”

Change may be gradual. “[I]f I was going to guess,” Carl Safina said, “I would say that there probably will be some decent years to come. There may be some great years to come… but it will not be an improving trend.” There is, too, reason to be guardedly optimistic for 2020. The die-off seemed to affect post-spawned adult scallops, meaning that a juvenile population remains. If these juveniles remain healthy, we could see a healthy harvest next year.

Still, the prevailing sentiment—shared by the water-faring and scientific communities—is that the fishing landscape of Long Island has reached a tipping point. “It only takes one year to do a lot of damage,” Mr. Doall said. While the true result of that damage remains to be seen, the dedicated baymen will have to slog on for another season, relying on hope for a boom year. “I’m gonna try and hold on as long as I can, because this is what I do,” Nat Miller said. “A lot of question marks in my head right now.”