No DEC biologist = no clamming

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04/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Local baymen who face the vagaries of wind and tide and uncertain shellfish stocks say an additional threat to their livelihoods has surfaced, the state government’s lack of money.

Because the state won’t hire a biologist needed to monitor their water quality, productive shellfish beds in Hashamomuck Pond in Southold and Mattituck Creek have been off limits to baymen for the past two winters.

The pond and creek had provided a source of income when conditions kept baymen out of other waters. Those two areas had been opened conditionally, only in the winter and only during dry weather. Under the rules for so-called “conditional” shellfish beds, a DEC biologist is needed to routinely test water samples and gauge the level of contaminants that might have washed down through rain runoff. After a rain, those areas are closed to shellfishing until testing shows that pollution is not an issue.

“For us, this is big financially,” said Nathan Andruski, president of the Southold Town Baymen’s Association. The inability to harvest oysters in Mattituck meant he alone lost about $15,000.

Mr. Andruski said he’s taken his concerns to the state, “but they gave us the runaround in every which way, which leaves you angry and frustrated.”

He said he learned that with the state facing a $9 billion budget gap, Gov. Patterson’s hiring freeze imposed in November left 20 DEC positions vacant, six within the regional shellfish section. He received a letter in March from William Hastback, acting head of the shellfish section, which said the DEC is aware of the baymen’s hardships, but the state deficit makes it “highly unlikely” that any open positions will be filled in the foreseeable future and that further cutbacks “are likely to occur.”

Said Mr. Andruski, “Every shellfish meeting I go to, that’s how it starts. You think it’s bad now, but it’s going to get worse.”

Southold Trustee Jimmy King has worked to expand the areas open for shellfishing and for years has collected water samples himself and taken them to the DEC’s Setauket office when the state said it had no one available to do so. He called the state’s reaction “frustrating and disappointing.” He added that, although the agency lacks a biologist to run tests on the samples, it still wants him to collect them to maintain the data flow.

Mr. King had hoped to prove the water quality in the pond and creek had risen to the point where both shellfish beds could be classified as “seasonal” rather than “conditional.” A seasonal area would not be off-limits after a modest rain.

When the DEC certifies the water in a conditional area as clean, baymen can work there only from December to April, but the areas are closed for eight days after any rainfall of a quarter-inch or more.

“I really don’t think there’s any health hazards in the creeks during the winter months,” Mr. Kind said. “None whatsoever.”

The baymen have asked county and state lawmakers to take up their cause.

“The state is so focused on economic development and jobs, but how many people are going to be out of work for the lack of one biologist?” said County Legislator Ed Romaine. “It’s killing the shellfishing industry. In a few years, we may not have any baymen because it doesn’t pay.”

Assemblyman Marc Alessi has asked DEC commissioner Pete Grannis to “think outside the box” and investigate alternatives such as have having Stony Brook University marine science students complete the water sample tests.

“We’ve got to make sure that the regional director and the commissioner understand the economic importance of this position,” said State Senator Kenneth LaValle. With the budget deficit, “Every agency is sticking their thumb in the eye of legislators to get them to do what they want. We don’t have to close a park or a campus to make a point,” he said in reference to the state’s proposed shutdowns of both the Orient Beach State Park and Stony Brook’s Southampton campus.

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