It was a beautiful day for it. To the south of the causeway, under a clear blue sky with sunlight glinting off Orient Harbor, a clutch of volunteers, dressed in the bright yellows and neon orange favored by those who work on the water, were bending over portable tables and chucking empty scallop shells over their shoulders or viable ones into a bucket. By the water some of the bigger guys were shaking scallops out of slinky-shaped nets and waiting for the boat to come back with more. Boots crushed the discarded striped shells on the shore’s pebbles, and every once in a while someone would pry open an animal and watch the pearl-white muscle pulse before scraping it out and popping it into his or her mouth.
But the point here was not food; it was repopulating the bay with the once-plentiful Argopecten irradians. The volunteers donate their time to SPAT, the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training, and they are a dedicated lot, as growing scallops can keep you busy year round.
The volunteers were working on the nets that had come out of their “farm,” a five-acre field in the harbor crossed by 15 long lines from which hang 200 nets per line. Four to five times a year a portion of the nets are drawn from the water and the volunteers go to work culling the mollusks so they can be restocked into cleaned nets at a lower density. First-year scallops are sectioned in a finegauge net 200 at a time. The next year they’re moved to a net with larger holes and share their space with only 35 others. All the while, back at SPAT headquarters at Cedar Beach in Southold, the larger scallops are encouraged to spawn and the process starts all over again. It’s believed that seeding efforts like this are part of the reason catches of sweet, diminutive Peconic Bay scallops are on the rebound after several dismal decades.
Jeff Chagnon, an aquaculture technician working on the project, says the farm does more than create new scallops. “It creates a structure that attracts organisms that are part of the zooplankton community; it creates a food chain.” Which attracts larger fish and a more varied marine life. “That’s a side advantage.”