Can clams and oysters make a comeback in Oyster Bay?

NOBBA supports idea of Oyster Bay Harbor sanctuary

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People engaged in shellfishing in Oyster Bay Harbor, commercially or otherwise, respect the opinions of Friends of the Bay, which advocates for the bay’s protection. But the nonprofit environmental organization has traditionally chosen not to take sides between commercial shellfishing company Frank M. Flower & Sons, which uses mechanical dredging, and independent shellfishers from the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association, who believe that dredging damages the bay. The science is mixed on the practice, FOB members say, so they’d like to stay out of it. Instead, the organization is focusing on the big picture — and perhaps not a moment too soon.

After several meetings with Town of Oyster Bay officials, FOB has written an open letter to the community, and shared it with the Herald (see letter in left collumn), outlining strategies to keep the bay, which is suffering from a declining shellfish population, viable.

“When we tell people there are almost no oysters left in Oyster Bay, and that the oysters at the Oyster Festival two years ago had to be imported from Connecticut by the Rotary Club, people looked stunned,” Bill Bleyer, FOB’s president, said. “So we said we have to stop talking to ourselves and tell the public what’s going on.”

Billy Painter, president of NOBBA, said he believes the situation in Oyster Bay Harbor is dire. He said he knows of only two baymen who currently work there. The rest fish in the Long Island Sound in Glen Cove.

In the letter, FOB recommends that the town create a bay management plan with an advisory committee that would include “representatives from user groups, environmental organizations and experts in bay management and water-based industries.”

In an email to the Herald, town representatives wrote that its Department of Environmental Resources has created a Water Resources Guidance Document, which is similar to a bay management plan. Discussed with environmentalists, including members of FOB, prior to being drawn up, it is currently in draft form. The document includes a framework for implementing programs to improve conditions in the Oyster Bay Harbor-Cold Spring Harbor complex.

Once the town is ready to implement the strategies outlined in the document, the email stated, an advisory committee will be created.

Flower’s lease for 1,500 acres in Oyster Bay Harbor expires in 2024, and the town has not yet agreed to renew it. For now, the town has said it would allow 150 acres outside Flower’s leased area to be harvested by commercial companies. There are no plans for Flower’s acreage.

FOB would like to see a large portion of the harbor become a sanctuary, with shellfishing prohibited. But the organization would leave the decision on exactly how large that area would be to the town’s consultants.

The town is asking that new leaseholders use “off-bottom” aquaculture — growing shellfish in a bag or cages suspended off the bay bottom — which FOB supports. One company is currently under consideration.

Even so, recreational and commercial shellfish license holders would be able to use rakes in certified areas, said Barry Lamb, a past president of FOB and the chair of its conservation committee.

“It’s important to point out that the entire bay is open to some kind of harvest at this point other than areas that are closed due to water quality,” Lamb said. “At no point in its history has any portion of the bay been managed for habitat and ecological services and put aside for that reason.”

Flower, who planted clams and oyster seeds annually for years, stopped doing so in 2019, five years before its lease was set to expire, and also shut down its hatchery. The reason given, Bleyer said, was the company was uncertain that its lease would be renewed, and maintained that there were issues with predators.

There is a three-year cycle from seeding clams to harvest, and two to three years for oysters. “Nothing is five years,” Bleyer said. “. . . [Flower] stopped [seeding], claiming it was half predator issues and half uncertainty over the lease, but they also said there were areas where there weren’t much of a predator problem. So for them to shut down the hatchery five years before the lease expired and not do any seeding at all sent up a red flag for us.”

Heather Johnson, FOB’s executive director, said they don't know  whether or not there is a predator problem. "There might be some," she said, "but if there is enough to cause damage we don't know that."

James Cammarata, Flower’s attorney, could not be reached by press time.

Included in FOB’s letter is a suggestion that any company  receiving a town license to cultivate shellfish be required to provide clam and or oyster seeds annually to be planted in a designated sanctuary or conservation management area. There are two conservation areas, one in Oyster Bay and the other in Cold Spring Harbor. The one in Cold Spring Harbor has a spawner sanctuary. Johnson said that FOB would like to see more spawner sanctuaries.

FOB supports a planned town shellfish recycling program set to begin in 2022, also mentioned in the letter. The town is working on coordinating the details, which include finding space to cure the shells and managing a collection process.

“Wetlands restoration and the creation of oyster reefs are needed to protect existing wetlands and reduce shore erosion,” FOB’s letter stated. “A town shell-recycling program to retrieve shells from restaurants should be the first step toward the creation of these oyster reefs.”

Using the recycled shells would help return unproductive bottom land to viable oyster habitat by providing a home for seed oysters, FOB said.

Bob Wemyss, NOBBA’s secretary, was surprised by the letter. “We’ve been lobbying Friends of the Bay to ask the Army Corps of Engineers to require a water quality certification since 2013,” he said. “If they stood up on that issue a long time ago, [a depleted harbor] could have been resolved years ago.”

Wemyss said he would like to see a permanent sanctuary and rotational management, similar to the way farmers rotate crops. “The issue of what to do with Flower’s lease, should it not be renewed, should be the subject of a comprehensive shellfish management plan,” Wemyss said, “and no new use of aquaculture on that land should be approved until the management plan is adopted.”

Painter would also like to see more of the bay become a sanctuary. And he, too, supports a bay management plan, which he said NOBBA has asked for for a long time.

“It would decide where to put the sanctuaries, and include a rotational plan — work one area for a year, and then close it for three to four years,” Painter said. “We’ve never had that in our harbor. If you take too much, sooner or later it won’t be there anymore. I know the town looks at us as a commercial entity, but we are also stewards of the harbor.”

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