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Shellfish

Juvenile clams maturing in Brookhaven’s hatchery. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Restoring Long Island’s coastal waters as a haven for shellfish to thrive has been a multidecade battle for the Town of Brookhaven. This year, it has added some artillery to the fight in the form of a public-private-nonprofit partnership born in the spirit of sustainability and recycling.

In the 1800s, Long Island was considered the oyster capital of the world, according to Maureen Dunn, water quality scientist at Seatuck Environmental Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Long Island’s wildlife and environment.

“So, to think that there’s virtually no wild oysters in the South Shore is incredible, but it’s really something that we can fix,” Dunn said Sept. 7 at Brookhaven’s shellfish hatchery located on the shores of Mount Sinai Harbor.

For more than 30 years, Brookhaven has been buying juvenile clams and oysters when they are just a millimeter in size, partially maturing them at the town’s hatchery and strategically returning them to North and South Shore waters in an effort to boost the population. Tom Carrano, the town’s assistant waterways management supervisor who has overseen this process since taking the position in the early ’80s, is set to retire imminently.

“Realistically, clams and oysters are the only natural resource the town actually owns because we own the bay bottom,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that there is sufficient quantities of these animals.”

To aid in fulfilling that responsibility, beginning this year the town has partnered with Seatuck and so far five restaurants to spearhead a program called Half Shells for Habitat. The program entails the restaurants setting aside shells from eaten clams and oysters; collecting them; delivering them to the town’s composting facility in Manorville where they are aged in the sun for six months to a year to ensure viruses and bacteria are not inhabiting the discarded shells; bringing the shells to the hatchery to allow the tiny shellfish to adhere to the larger shells, building what essentially amount to shellfish reefs; and then returning them to the water in the hopes of growing new shellfish. 

The town has the capability to grow more than 3 million shellfish in its hatchery per year, and officials believe the use of mature shells will give them a better chance at maturation and warding off predators. Creating the shellfish reefs has several other benefits. The juvenile shellfish require a hard bottom to survive, which the reefs can provide. They also can work as erosion control if placed properly, can counteract the effects of water acidification spurred by climate change and also help to filter algae from the water.

“As CO2 levels in the atmosphere go up, ocean and coastal acidification become more of a concern,” said Anthony Graves, Brookhaven’s chief environmental analyst. 

He said taking the shells out of the town’s solid waste stream and using them to improve water quality by staving off erosion and stimulating shellfish growth is a “win-win-win” for the environment.

“It’s tremendous how far we’ve come,” Carrano said, reflecting on the evolution of the operation of shellfish seeding in the town from when he started in his role. “When I started we were growing 100,000 clams. Now we’re growing a million and a half, close to 2 million clams this year and 2 million oysters. The town has been very generous and forthcoming in pushing this program and allowing it to move forward.”

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said he would like to see New York adopt a similar law to the state of Maryland’s, which prohibits discarding shells in landfills.

“We’ve made a major commitment to restocking our bays, our harbor ways, our Sound, doing what we can do to restore the balance of nature,” he said. “It’s a cumulative battle, but it’s a battle that we’ve joined, it’s a battle that we intend to continue to fight because we think it’s important not only for the health of the bay, but also to ensure that the bay or harbor can support clams and oysters.”

Currently five restaurants have signed on to participate in the program — Catch Oyster Bar in Patchogue, Prime in Huntington, H2O Seafood & Sushi in East Islip and Tellers: An American Chophouse in Islip — though the town is looking for more. Prior to placing shellfish reefs back in the water, Graves said the town will need permission in the form of a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Local shellfish, like oysters and clams, are harvested on the North Shore. File photo

Citing recent bacteriological surveys, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced emergency regulations to change the designation of underwater shellfish lands in Suffolk county. Shellfish harvesting will be closed or limited to particular months in approximately 1,844 acres of bays and harbors in Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip, Smithtown, Riverhead, Southampton, Southold, East Hampton and Oyster Bay, to comply with state and national standards to protect public health.

Through the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, states are required to conduct routine water quality sampling in shellfish harvesting areas. Failure by a state to comply with these national water quality-monitoring protocols could lead to a prohibition of the sale of shellfish products in interstate commerce.

The DEC’s analyses of water quality in these areas showed increased levels of fecal coliform bacteria. The increased bacteria indicates that shellfish harvested from these areas have the potential to cause human illness if consumed.

Bacteria can enter the waters from a variety of human, animal, cesspool and storm water sources. The DEC is working with local governments in Suffolk County on major projects to improve water quality in the region, an effort that will reduce discharges of bacteria and nitrogen. The DEC will work with partners to track down the bacteria sources and oversee mandated local efforts to address illicit discharges of sewage into storm sewer systems, while also continuing to evaluate sources of bacteria in an effort to resolve the issue.

The DEC’s emergency regulations will change the designation of the affected shellfish areas to “uncertified,” or closed, for the harvest of clams, mussels, oysters and scallops, either year-round or seasonally.

In Mount Sinai Harbor in Brookhaven Town, approximately 200 acres will be reclassified as closed for the harvest of shellfish during the period May 1 to Oct. 31.

In Stony Brook Harbor, approximately 300 acres shall be reclassified as closed from May 15 through Oct. 31, to closed instead from May 1 through Dec. 31, for the harvest of shellfish.

In Cold Spring Harbor, approximately 99 acres shall be designated as closed during from May 1 through Oct. 15, for the harvest of shellfish.

For more information about shellfish safety and New York’s role in the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, visit the DEC’s website. The emergency regulations adopting the changes are effective immediately. Additional information may also be obtained by contacting the DEC’s Shellfisheries office at (631) 444-0492.

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