In more recent decades, Peconic Bay scallops have garnered iconic, rock-star status, showing up on dinner plates in the most celebrated restaurants throughout the Northeast. They are considered a fall and winter delicacy and a New Year’s tradition for restaurant diners and Long Island locals alike.
But what makes for Peconic Bay’s coastal equivalent of wine grape “terroir”— clear, shallow waters fed by fresh groundwater that help give the scallops their uniquely sweet, delicate flavor and tender flesh—are the same conditions that leave the bay vulnerable to climate change. Warmer temperatures can build in the shallow, protected body of water while dissolved oxygen levels diminish.
“If I didn’t think this would work, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Peconic Bay’s value is more than regional. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the Long Island scallop fishery a federal disaster in 2021. And the Nature Conservancy has named the estuary one of the “Last Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere, citing its “rich mosaic of coastal and underwater habitats that support diverse communities and 140 globally and locally rare species.”
While CCE and Stony Brook have taken matters into their own hands, wrestling climate change in the bay with selective breeding, that, of course, is only part of the solution.
“Mitigating further warming by transitioning to clean energy is critical,” said Stephen Tomasetti, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and lead author of the recent report in Global Change Biology. “The same goes for committing to practices that improve local water quality.”
The researchers and field workers are acutely aware of how warming waters have impacted other wild shellfish populations in the Northeast. “Lobsters essentially disappeared from Long Island Sound, and we’ve seen the loss of intertidal blue mussels in coastal bays south of Delaware, both a result of increasing summer temperatures,” Tomasetti said.
But there are success stories too, like the selectively bred wild oysters that have been thriving in Chesapeake Bay for at least a decade. As for a return of Peconic Bay scallops, the researchers are more than hopeful: “If I didn’t think this would work,” Allam said, “I wouldn’t be doing it.”