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Disaster Relief Sought for Great South Bay’s Clammers

July 15, 2008

By Jennifer Smith, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Jul. 15–Clam harvests in the Great South Bay were in steep decline by the time brown tide arrived on Long Island in 1985, but this year’s historically most widespread algae bloom has generated renewed concern and an unprecedented attempt to involve the federal government.

Speaking yesterday at a Patchogue dock against a backdrop of water darkened by brown tide, Sen. Charles Schumer and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Brian Foley called on the federal Commerce Department to provide disaster relief for the Great South Bay.

Declaration of a commercial fishery failure could provide greater access to federal money for research and restoration of a bay that has still not recovered from the collapse of the hard clam population.

Congress set aside $13.9 million for research and assistance to New York and Connecticut lobstermen after the Commerce Department declared a failure of the Long Island Sound lobster fishery in 1999.

What makes the declaration sought by Schumer, Foley and local baymen different from most issued by the department is that the initial crisis here occurred more than 30 years ago. Typically, declarations are sought by state governors in response to sudden crises such as the toxic red tide blooms in 2005 that shut down New England shellfishing.

Back in its 1970s heyday, the Great South Bay was second only to the Chesapeake Bay for harvesting clams, eels and crabs, said clammer Florence Sharkey of Patchogue. “We watched it diminish so that only one of us [in her family] are still working on the water out there,” Sharkey said.

Schumer said clam landings had since declined by 95 percent in the Great South Bay, dropping from 100 million bushels in 1985 to less than 5 million in recent years. He, Foley and local baymen seek the declaration based on that decades-long decline, which Foley said had cost the local economy as much as $63 million.

They also cited recurring blooms of brown tide algae, which produces a chemical that makes it hard for clams to feed and shades out the light needed by aquatic plants that provide critical habitat for young fish. Researchers are concerned that this year a bloom of unprecedented scope and intensity that has clouded waters from Massapequa to Shinnecock could do further harm to the shellfish that remain.

“If we don’t act fast, the damage could be irreversible,” Schumer said.

No statute of limitations exists for declaring a fishery failure. But officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the division of the Commerce Department that reviews such requests, said they were revising the rules to clarify the parameters for determining disasters.

“I would say back when the trend was first noticed, that’s the time to request some kind of assistance with the commercial fishery,” said Steve Aguzin, a fisheries service management and program analyst. “Over the course of 10 to 20 years, if it [fishery landings] drops significantly and it’s never returned, I’m sure that these fishermen probably found another livelihood.”

Bayman George Rigby, 49, of Moriches, said the number of clammers working the South Shore had dwindled to little more than a handful since he began fishing commercially in 1974, when thousands had permits to clam. Those who remain in the business have had to expand their horizons, harvesting in waters all along the North and South shores.

He said he wants Commerce to declare a fishery failure because it could provide grant money for more research.

The letter Schumer’s office faxed to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez yesterday is just the first step in the process. It also involves an extensive review of harvest and economic data to determine whether the declaration is warranted.

Aguzin of the National Marine Fisheries Service said such data are usually supplied by the state seeking the declaration. A Schumer spokesman said his office had not yet sent those numbers but would supply them as requested.

Turning the tide?

A “DISASTER” IN THE MAKING?

There’s an extensive backdrop to the request by Sen. Charles Schumer to have the Great South Bay declared a federal “fishery failure.” Although recreational anglers continue to catch fish in the bay, some species, such as winter flounder, have struggled in recent years, and little remains of the once-bountiful hard-clam fishery there.

A LONG SHELLFISH DECLINE.

Until the early part of the 20th century, Long Island was a national supplier of oysters, with communities such as Sayville serving as major bases for fleets of oyster boats. Clams then dominated for decades. In 1976, more than 700,000 bushels of clams were taken from the Great South Bay. In recent years, that figure has dipped below 10,000 bushels.

Causes often cited: Pollution from land; the construction of the Southwest Sewer District system, which changed the kinds of nutrients flowing into the bay; closure of most duck farms, which also stanched a different kind of nutrient flow; changes in baywater salinity; and harvest pressure from anglers.

BROWN TIDE’S ROLE.

The huge blooms of algae known as “brown tide” did not start until 1985 — almost a decade after clam harvests began to drop on Long Island — so its link to the clam decline is difficult to establish. Still, its occasional appearance makes it harder for the clams that remain there, because it produces a chemical that limits their ability to feed. Researchers say a healthy shellfish population — more clams — could help control brown tide blooms because clams clean the water by filter-feeding; recurring blooms point to a larger shift in the bay’s ecosystem that could hurt other species’ ability to thrive there.

SCHUMER’S PLAN.

To have the U.S. Commerce Department declare a commercial fishery failure for hard clams in the Great South Bay. That designation would allow Congress to appropriate money for grants or loans for research, habitat restoration and disaster relief for affected fishermen.

THE GREAT SOUTH BAY.

A 64,000-acre aquatic habitat stretching 29 miles from South Oyster Bay on the west to Moriches Bay to the east. Bounded on south by Jones and Fire Islands, it is fed by estuaries of the Connetquot River and other South Shore streams and by the Atlantic Ocean tides entering through inlets.

Dozens of fish species include major recreational favorites, including summer flounder, winter flounder, striped bass and weakfish. Charter boats docked at Captree State Park ferry people to the fishing grounds.

Among the wildlife that make the bay their home are several species considered endangered by the federal government: the peregrine falcon, roseate tern, green sea turtle and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. More than 200 other species of animals, fish and plants are considered of “special emphasis,” requiring various levels of protection.

The bay’s marshes, mudflats and islands provide winter stopovers for several species of duck, including black ducks, red-breasted mergansers and scup.

Along shore, fishing for a solution

“The clams from this area used to be sent all over. They ended up in California, even in Europe. Today there’s barely enough for the local families and markets,” said John Buczak, a self-employed commercial fisherman who has been fishing for nearly 30 years in the Great South Bay. “Because of the state’s restrictions on the region there is no future generation of clammers in the area.”

“Shellfish used to be plentiful. But today it’s really difficult to find them, especially clams,” said Bob Mauro, a sports fisherman for more than 40 years. “There used to be enough clams to fill an entire table. I’d like to see one set of regulations across the board for the East Coast so I have to follow the same rules in New York as I do in New Jersey and Connecticut … I hope there is a thing called fishing in the next 10 to 15 years.”

“Certain species have seen an increase, others there’s been a decrease,” said Ken Sailer, a self-employed marine carpenter who has fished the Great South Bay for 35 years. “When clams were present 25 years ago you could walk from [Bay Shore] to Fire Island on clam boats. [Politicians] work for us, not the other way around. And if they don’t protect the people’s interests then they shouldn’t be in office.”

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