Hurricane Sandy may have disrupted the shellfishing schedules of many fishermen on the East End as several closures remain in effect across local waterways, but for a handful of shellfish farmers on the North Fork, a fresh new product of the Peconic Estuary system may be awaiting once the temporary bans are lifted: the in-shell bay scallop.
The smaller, less mature version of the traditional bay scallop many are used to, the in-shell scallop could not legally be sold until this past summer, after regulations were eased by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Using part of a $180,000 grant funded through the Long Island Regional Economic Development Committee, Cornell Cooperative Extension has worked with four oyster farmers on the North Fork over the past few months in an effort to begin developing best practices for farming in-shell scallops, and CCE will be hosting a kick-off party next week at Grand Central Oyster Bar to celebrate the product's first season.
Gregg Rivara, an aquaculture specialist with CCE who has been with the organization for over 25 years, said he foresees the in-shell scallop as a force that could significantly boost the local aquaculture industry.
"This could revolutionize the industry," Rivara said. "The oyster market is very strong. People I work with can't grow enough oysters. But that could change in coming years, and this is a way for them to diversify their crops. What dirt farmer do you know who only grows one thing?"
Rivara has been working toward promoting the in-shell scallop for decades; he still has 35-millimeter slides from presentations he did in the mid-1990s while attempting to promote the product. While making a trip up to Albany with members of the Long Island Farm Bureau in 2011 (aquaculture is considered agriculture under state law), Rivara said a window opened to inform officials upstate that New York was losing ground in the shellfish market to other states.
"Shellfish farmers said that they wanted to grow bay scallops, but DEC was making them hold them over winter and until they get two-and-a-quarter inches in height," Rivara said. "That's like telling Al Krupski he has to wait until his pumpkins are 6 inches in diameter until he can sell them. Remember, these aren't wild scallops. They're farm raised."
The regulation was lifted in mid-July of this year, and the grant funding covered some equipment and baby scallops for the farmers. The shellfish farmers, in turn, have used some equipment of their own, farmed the scallops in unique ways to compare the results of different techniques, and get to keep the finished products.
Next on the list, they say, is marketing the product itself.
"We have to develop the market," said John Holzapfel, a former Southold Trustee and co-owner Oysterponds Shellfish Company, whose company was one of the four involved in the project. "That's the biggest part."
Rivara compared the typical bay scallop to an entree, with an in-shell scallop – eaten whole, like clams or mussels – serving more as an appetizer. Holzapfel sees them as a "white-table restaurant" product, though due to shellfish regulations so far following the storm, he has been unable to bring them into restaurants to show them off to potential customers.
Mike Osinski, owner of Widow's Hole Oyster Company in Greenport, said "My experience so far going into the city is that there is little demand for these mini scallops. These guys all love the big wild ones, and they're willing to pay up for those."
That said, Osinksi added, "On the other hand I know there are people who have made a living off doing that," pointing to Cape Cod-based Taylor Bay Scallops.
Rivara is confident that if anywhere could be considered a market for a farm-raised scallop, it's in the Peconic Estuary.
"At one end of this island we have the Hamptons. At the other we have Manhattan," he said. "That's all I gotta tell you."
Next week's kickoff party will take place on Tuesday, from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.