There is something interesting about the wheel of time. As time flows some things are left behind, some remain, some reemerge, and some things remain yet their meaning fades. The Niantic Bay Scallop has become the emblem of Niantic, yet scalloping as an industry in this town has become nearly nonexistent over the past 70 years. What role has the Niantic Bay Scallop played in the town’s history and culture, and what is the state of the Niantic Bay Scallop today?
As evidenced by its delegation as the symbol of Niantic, the Niantic Bay Scallop holds a prominent role in the history and culture of the town. While Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm is currently the exclusive provider of the Niantic Bay Scallop, commercial and recreational scallopers used to flock to the river seeking both the abundance of scallops and the unmatched flavor of scallops raised in the water here. So what happened? The Niantic Bay Scallop is indigenous to the Niantic River. Along with other local fish and shellfish, the Niantic Bay Scallop is known to have been a source of food for the Nehântick people before their near-total destruction by European colonists in the Pequot War of 1637. Although the species was present in the river, it didn’t become prominent until the early 1930’s when the wasting disease hit the river and killed off much of the eelgrass, zostera marina. With the absence of the once dense eelgrass in the shallows, water was able to better circulate, leading to a larger set and eventual growth to maturity rate for the Bay Scallop. As the population began to rise, commercial fisheries dominated the scene for the next decade and in another decade the majority of scallopers on the river were doing so for recreational or small-scale commercial purposes. From 1947 to 1951 between 30,000 and 50,000 bushels of Bay Scallops were harvested a year dropping down to just 10,000 bushels in 1952. From that point forward the scallop population in the river has gone into decline, hedging on extinction. As we move forward with restoration efforts, it is paramount that we adhere to sustainable harvesting practices so that one day the bay scallop can flourish again in the Niantic River.
Wild Caught vs. Farm-Raised
In the Niantic River, scallops naturally spawn from mid-June through July when the water begins to change temperature. Scallops reach maturity and are ready to spawn after one year. Mortality rates in bay scallops of all sizes stay high year-round with very few surviving long enough to spawn for a second time. When recreationally scalloping in Connecticut, bay scallops must not be able to pass through a 2.0” diameter ring and must be collected from a drifting boat. All scallops harvested must be over a year old, as indicated by markings on their shell. At this point the scallops have reached maturity and have had a chance to spawn, this ensures that the practice of scalloping remains sustainable and overharvesting does not occur.
Farming bay scallops is a relatively new practice, scallops require a lot of space to move around, well-circulated water, and sunlight. Each year at Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm we experiment a little more with our grow-out technique. Farmed shellfish is an extremely sustainable practice that not only results in a nutrient-rich delicacy for you to enjoy, but also helps regulate and filter the water in which they are grown. Unlike recreational scalloping, farmed scallops do not have a defined season and can be enjoyed before full maturity at smaller sizes, making them perfect for steaming. Our 2020-21 scallops average 1.25” when measured dorsoventrally, or from hinge to top of the right valve. See our "Techniques and Recipes" blog for our preferred ways to enjoy this smaller variety of scallop.
So what is going on with the Niantic Bay Scallop population today? 2015 saw the most abundant scallop harvest in the Niantic River of the past two decades. At this time W.E.L.S.C.O. (Waterford East Lyme Shellfish Commission) put out a set of new guidelines in an effort to avoid over-harvesting and to allow a continual set of scallops for years to come. Since that time Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm has been a part of one project to reseed the river and has put forward three additional proposals to help restore the bay scallop, two of these proposals were rejected by W.E.L.S.C.O. and the third was blocked by the town. For more information on this and other roadblocks Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm has faced in trying to help keep the shellfishing culture of this town alive, visit "The Facts" section of our website. Since 2015 the river has opened for scalloping for just two seasons, both of which produced low harvest yields. It is the hope of Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm that with the support of our community we will be able to continue our reseeding efforts and re-establish the prominence of the Niantic Bay Scallop.
Those looking to try their hand at scalloping can expect the scalloping season to open as early as October 1st but as late as December 1st extending into the winter months. With low wild populations persisting in the river, hopeful recreational scallopers have grown accustomed to the unpredictability of the scallop season. Currently, Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm operates a private hatchery that enables us to selectively spawn and raise Native Niantic Bay Scallops. This is the most aggressive attempt to revive this species to date. It has been and remains a primary goal of Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm to restore the native bay scallop population in the river for all to enjoy.