Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back

Written By: John Holzapfel

The sun appears to be moving more to the north and each day it is a little higher over the waters of the East End of Long Island. The sky over Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay is turning bluer, the waters are greener and both the waters and air are becoming warmer. Spring is ending and summer is about to begin. The spark of new life is in the air; my parent’s bright blue eyes glisten but…

…the next two weeks will be the most dangerous two weeks in my life.

Considering my circumstances, my chances at survival are less than a million to one.

If only I make it through these two weeks, my short life will be relatively secure, before death will ultimately come knocking and without any fanfare remove me silently and finally from my world and into another life.

Whether it is the Roman Praxiteles’ sculpture of Aphrodite or, almost two thousand years later, Botticelli’s Renaissance painting of the Birth of Venus, these goddesses of love are pictured arising from a scallop shell …

… and this is where my life also begins.

The egg and sperm that created me were protandrously cast off by my hermaphroditic parents into the flowing currents of Peconic Bay. Sperm first, separated by an evolutionary determined period of time and then egg. Nature’s unwritten but unyielding laws have long been set to prevent any inbreeding. Billions of eggs and trillions of sperm are cast into a three-dimensional fluid flux simply called by most East Enders – The Bay.

By serendipity, one egg and one sperm join and create me – a new Peconic Bay scallop. Now the species has a chance to survive for another year. One fertilized egg out of the million or so from each adult scallop is all it takes to continue the species; if two survive the population doubles in one year. My odds of survival are millions to one.

The next two weeks are so dangerous because this is the time I develop from a fertilized egg into a larva and spend most of my time floating aimlessly through the bay. Any filter feeding organism is quite willing to make a meal of me.

Adult bay scallops (maybe even my parents), close relatives such as oysters, clams and mussels see no problem in devouring me. All those shellfish are filter feeders. Each mollusk is filtering between 20 and 60 gallons of bay water every day for food. From Riverhead to Montauk, tens of millions of shellfish are feeding on billions of gallons of the bay each day. I am floating helplessly in that mixture.

The great schools of menhaden or bunkers, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, swim shoulder to shoulder, fin to fin with mouths gaping wide, devouring everything that enters. One fish alone filters 7,500 gallons of Peconic and Gardiners Bay water every day. Again, millions of fish sweep up billions of gallons of water.

Sponges, jelly fish, barnacles and worms are all ready to feed on me.

The list of antagonists is endless.

If I can make it through these first two weeks, I will undergo a process that most of my molluscan relatives undergo; it is called setting. As a larva, I will leave the pelagic world of aimlessly floating around and move to a permanent benthic life. An oyster will try to set on another oyster shell. It will glue itself on and never move again. A clam will attach to the bottom and will use its foot to dig in, but my life will be different.

Again, nature through thousands of generations of bay scallops has selected and built in a compulsion to search out eel grass – other substrates will work but these thousands of ancestors have increased their survival due to the fact that their priority was to attach to eel grass when it was time to set. Since they survived, these genes passed down to the next generation. Bay scallops prefer eel grass.

Around this time, as I am transformed into a juvenile scallop, my name changes from being called a larva to what is commonly called a spat. I am now less than a one-quarter of an inch in size and developing a foot and a distinctive shell.

Scallop shells have been featured in art, architecture, furniture and religion throughout history. The 1,000-year-old, pilgrimage across the north of Spain called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) has its trail marked with scallop shells, Newport highboys are recognized by the structure of their scallop shells and the scallop shell itself is displayed throughout the world as the Shell Oil Company’s logo.

I am now capable of creating byssal threads that allow me along, with my foot, to temporally attach to the blades of eel grass and gradually move up the blades, out of the reach of bottom-dwelling predators such as crabs. Scientists are baffled by my manipulation of these threads and still cannot duplicate the extremely strong glue. But even then, survival is uncertain. Over 85% of spat will die in the next few months.

One thing that differentiates me from my other mollusk relatives and enhances my survival is my multiple bright-blue eyes. The over 30 eyes found along the perimeter of my shell can record movement and shades, and allow me to react to my environment.

Secondly, I am not cemented into one lifelong position like an oyster, nor do I dig into the bottom and move a few inches as clams do.

I am mobile; jet propulsion is my mode of transportation.

If I violently clap my shell closed once or twice, the water will squirt out the front of my shells and I will quickly shoot backward a foot or two, while if I control the clapping of the shell in a slower and continuous manner, I will be able to swim five, 10, 15 feet or further.

Twice in recent history, Peconic Bay scallops almost descended into oblivion, joining the many species that have been eliminated from the bays of the East End. In 1932, a then mysterious disease attacked the eel grass plants and devastated the whole East Coast.

To quote the East Hampton Star 10-21-1932

“…all seaweed has disappeared from the bottom of all the local bays and harbors. Not a spear of weed (eel grass) has been seen on the bottom.”

Over next few years, the harvest of bay scallops was almost nonexistant, but eventually a few far-flung nooks and crannies of the East End bays had provided a sanctuary for eel grass and it and the scallops made a very slow comeback.

In 1985, another challenge to the survival of the entire population of East End bay scallops took place – brown tide.

Brown tide is an extremely small alga that grows in very dense concentrations – over 3 million cells of it could be found in a thimble of water. It was so dense that light penetrated only a few inches into the water. This lack of light meant the eel grass and other algae died off. Also, bay scallops did not find brown tide too nutritious and there was no other food in the waters. The scallops died both young and old.

This time, through human intervention, a series of programs came about to re-establish bay scallops, and recently the population has been increasing.

The important thing to remember is that adult bay scallops only have one chance to reproduce and the young have to make it through those first few months or there is no next generation.

Having eyes and being able to swim greatly increases my chances to survive into the winter until once again another year begins in the spring and this time I am the parent and the future of the species depends on my producing viable and multitudinous sex cells.

The next generation has begun. My purpose in life has been accomplished. I will live and grow into my second winter and die before next spring. My slightly over year and a half’s existence has been short, fraught with danger but purposeful…

… however, there is another phase to my existence.

Beginning in the fall, East Enders pull out their look boxes, nets, and waders and along, with the baymen with their dredges, set out to stalk the adult blue-eyed scallop. Since adult scallops have reproduced and are going to die before next spring, their total harvest does not affect the survival of the species.

The object of this intensive search is the large abductor muscle that powers the scallop’s swimming. It is full of glycogen (composed of simple sugars) and very little fat and, due to its tenderness and most importantly its sweetness; it has been an extraordinary delight to the palates of the East End community and the world.

Like Michelangelo, Dante or Madonna, only one word is necessarily associated with bay scallops – Peconic Bay Scallops.