CHINCOTEAGUE BAY -- It began as an experiment, almost a lark. A curious crew of state shellfish biologists wondered whether they could bring back a healthy population of bay scallops here, more than 60 years after an aquatic plague wiped them out.
Mark Homer didn't mean to fall in love. But when 36 iridescent blue eyes met his two green ones, he was a goner.
"They're cute," said Homer, who has spent the past two years watching over the 1.2 million hatchery-bred bay scallops he has tucked away in a secret, sheltered spot. "They have lots and lots of beautiful eyes. They jump around in your hand. They actually seem to have personalities."
Originally, the scientists from the Department of Natural Resources' shellfish monitoring program hoped to establish a small recreational fishery for scallops in waters that have become too salty for the once-famed Chincoteague oysters.
That's still the official goal, but Homer has had a change of heart. "I'll never eat another bay scallop," he said. "People shouldn't eat 'em. Keep 'em as pets."
It's a joke, of course. But the effort to raise bay scallops here has become a labor of love for the four-man crew. Traveling each week from their homes in Southern Maryland, they have endured stifling heat and stinging flies to protect the little mollusks from a daunting array of enemies: slimy seaweed that threatens to suffocate them, fast-growing worms that encrust their shells, storms that could smother them in silt, voracious blue and green crabs eager to gobble them up.
"It's a hostile environment, and not just for scallops," said biologist Charles Rice.
There are signs that the effort is paying off. This summer, the scientists found microscopic scallop larvae in water samples taken nearby -- evidence that the 580,000 tiny bivalves they'd planted in 1997 were big enough and healthy enough to breed naturally.
They plan to search the surrounding waters this week for very young scallops, or spat. If they find them, it will be clear proof that the reintroduction is working.
Single act of nature
The apparent success of the $210,000 program is a sign that the bay's water quality is good and its sea grasses are thriving. But a single act of nature could undo their efforts, said biologist Mitch Tarnowski.
"They really only last one year. They generally spawn and then die," Tarnowski said. "So if you lose one year class, you've lost the whole population. It's just so tenuous. They are very sensitive little creatures."
Bay scallops once grew naturally in this area. From the 1890s to the 1920s, there was a small but profitable scallop fishery in Virginia's portion of Chincoteague Bay, Tarnowski said. In the early 1930s, a blight wiped out eel grass beds up and down the East Coast. The scallops, which depend on the grasses for shelter from predators, disappeared along with the underwater meadows.
End of the oysters
Local watermen barely noticed their absence so long as the oyster industry continued to thrive. But in 1933 a hurricane tore a new inlet south of Ocean City. The new opening changed Chincoteague Bay from a brackish estuary, where conditions were just right for oysters, into an arm of the sea, where salt levels are too high for young oysters to survive. Gradually, the oysters disappeared.
Now bay winds blow through the missing boards of abandoned packing houses along Chincoteague's western shore. The DNR crew has repeatedly surveyed these waters for oysters and found none, nor any hope that conditions are right for re-establishing them, Tarnowski said.
"We used to find scallop shells throughout Chincoteague Bay, but no live scallops," said Tarnowski. "We'd find the shells all over Assateague Beach. "
" And we started thinking about why there weren't any scallops there," said Homer. "And we kind of decided that there wasn't any reason. So we decided to put some there."
Scallops can tolerate the bay's high salt levels, the biologists reasoned. And the eel grass has rebounded, forming lush meadows that provide the shelter the bivalves need. With a $150,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and about $60,000 worth of salaries covered by their own agency, the DNR scientists decided to try re-establishing the creatures.
"We really didn't know what we were doing when we started," Homer said. "I'd never even seen a live scallop before."
The first year was a flop; the Virginia hatchery that was to provide them with tiny scallops lost its entire crop of youngsters, for unknown reasons. The biologists turned to hatcheries in Maine and Long Island, which each May ship them about 600,000 scallops wrapped in newspapers and packed in plastic foam boxes via air freight.
"We run to the plane. From the plane, we run to the boats, run out here and toss 'em out real quick," said biologist Robert Bussell. "We figure the less time they're out of the water, the better."
Keeping out predators
To keep the scallops in and predators like blue crabs out, the biologists built four 100-by-100-foot pens out of metal stakes and plastic netting in water about three feet deep. When first released, the young scallops are no bigger than a newborn baby's thumbnail. By now, this May's hatchlings have grown to about the size of an adult's thumbnail, while those placed in the pens 18 months ago are two inches wide or bigger.
On the balmy last day of November, Homer waded into the pens and scooped up bucketfuls of fat scallops, their fluted shells striped in shades of brown, cream, red, orange and gold. Tarnowski perched on the gunwale of a skiff, counting the dead ones and measuring the living. So far, about 80 percent survive -- far higher than some northern bays' rate of 5 percent to 10 percent survival, the biologists said.
Perched atop mounds of seaweed, the scallops clapped their shells open and closed, revealing fat yellow lips and 18 pairs of tiny blue eyes, each the size of a dressmaker's pinhead, veiled behind thick chartreuse lashes. The lips and lashes are multipurpose organs, Tarnowski said -- they help to secrete the scallops' shells, sense the tiny bits of plankton that they eat, and guide the squirting jets of water that propel the bivalves through the water.
As the late fall sun warmed an aquarium where the prettiest specimens rested, the scallops began to dance through the water. They twirled like waltzers and somersaulted like acrobats.
"Could you see an oyster doing that?" said Homer with a grin. "Only time an oyster dances is in a pot of boiling water."
If the hatchery scallops survive, the biologists say, they'll produce some of the same benefits that oysters used to offer -- helping keep bay waters clean by filtering out algae; providing food for trout, croakers, crabs and birds; and perhaps supporting a small recreational or commercial fishery.
Homer believes what the young scallops need is tough love. This is the last year of the reintroduction program, he said.
"Ideally, what we'd like is to see them spread, both in numbers and geographically," he said. "But I figure, we've put 1.2 million of 'em out here, spent $150,000 [in federal grants]. If they can't do it on their own now, they can't do it.
"Hey, government programs have to end sometime."
Pub Date: 12/02/98