Health & Environment

Governments team up to help open shellfishing areas

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO  |  Southold trustee and bayman Jim King harvests oysters and clams in Mattituck Inlet last year.
Southold trustee and bayman Jim King harvests oysters and clams in Mattituck Inlet last year. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

The East End’s baymen — at least what’s left of them — are getting a hand from local governments, which are trying to open up shellfish beds that were designated as polluted by the state but could actually be quite clean.

Due to a state regulatory agency that’s strapped for time and money, a new agreement from the Suffolk County Legislature and the Peconic Estuary Protection Committee will set up standard practices for the county and East End towns to test their own water under the state’s strict guidelines.

From there, regulators with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation can use the results from local tests to highlight which areas may be clean and — the hope is — reopen those locations to make the shellfishing beds more accessible to baymen.

“Anything we can do to open up these resources to the public is great,” said Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who voted in favor of the agreement.

According to a county spokesperson, the new program will “ensure that supplemental testing and data collection program will be usable by state and federal agencies.”

“The quality of our waterways has been an ongoing problem for decades now due to nitrogen poisoning,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.  “In order to reclaim our water and restore our shellfishing industry in the Peconic Estuary, our experts must obtain and extensively evaluate vital information.”

Mr. Krupski said the state DEC now regulates shellfishing, but doesn’t have the resources to consistently check on all the waterways in the Peconic Estuary and elsewhere. And until the water is tested to be clean, shellfishing areas remain closed.

“The water body is consider closed until proven innocent,” Mr. Krupski said.

Michael Collins, a Southold Town engineer and chair of the Peconic Estuary Protection Committee, said two areas in Southold Town — Budds Pond in Southold and West Harbor on Fisher’s Island — were designated “impaired waters,” but later testing showed the water wasn’t polluted at all.

“These regulations are based on limited data,” Mr. Collins said. “The DEC has the only lab certified to test shellfishing waters for pathogens, [but] they’re so strapped for resources.”

Southold Town and other local municipalities take it upon themselves to spend resources on water quality testing, Mr. Collins said.

“The town has every intention of going forward and doing these tests,” he said.

But without a plan that’s been approved by the DEC and the federal government, he said, “that data is only usable at the local level. It’s not something that’s necessarily be accepted at a higher level.”

The new standards for water quality tests would be in line with the DEC’s standards, meaning the state could accept those findings, Mr. Collins said; however, the DEC couldn’t reopen waterways based on the town’s data alone, he said. The state would still need to confirm the findings.

But the local tests would facilitate the processes, by giving the state an idea of where to investigate to either fix polluted waters or reopen clean ones.

“They would be able to focus resources on areas with genuine problems,” Mr. Collins said.

That could only help the remaining baymen, a dwindling crop of wild harvesters, said Karen Rivara, an oyster farmer and president of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

Once a dominant trade, the shellfishing profession has become less and less popular as the harvests have shrunk due to a population decline of scallops and clams. According to state DEC data, commercial anglers harvested an average of only 3,333 pounds of scallop meat from 1996 to 2007, about 1 percent of historical catch averages.

Recent efforts from researchers have introduced millions of scallop seedlings back into the Peconic Bay, with the hope of jump starting the population. But it’s still difficult to find the scallops and clams that are left, Ms. Rivara said.

“The younger guys who are coming in tend to go to aquaculture versus wild harvest because they control their fate,” Ms. Rivara said, adding she has a designated area in which to grow her shellfish.

Ms. Rivara said the easiest solution would be to just hire more DEC employees to test the waters.

“There are so many sub-estuaries that the DEC doesn’t have the manpower to do all the testing that the town would like to do,” she said.

But that is unlikely, so any moves the county can make to feed more data to the DEC, so long as its properly vetted, gives the baymen a better chance, she said.

“Anything that gives them more opportunity to harvest is helpful,” Ms. Rivara said.

The county proposal to standardize water quality testing will cost $75,000, paid for through the county’s 477 water quality funds — a quarter-cent tax voters decided to impose upon themselves to preserve fresh drinking water.

The cost for the towns would be much lower, Mr. Collins noted. The individual tests are cheap, costing as little as $12 each.

With a uniform practice in place, the town could be capable of sending “hundreds or thousands” of water quality tests to state and federal authorities each year, he said.

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