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Clam Wars Rage in Oyster Bay


Scratching Out A Living: Members of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association, such as Bill “Duckman” Fetzer, hand rake the bottom of Oyster Bay in search of clams and oysters they can sell to restaurants, every day, all year long. Among other demands of their lawsuit, they seek more shellfish lands for the public.

Anchors Aweigh


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On any given day, out on the water of Oyster Bay, Flower’s shellfish harvesting boats are visible.

They’re actually pretty tough to miss. Unlike the 20-or-so-foot clam skiffs used by diggers such as Schultz and his cohorts, sometimes working the same area for days, Flower’s fleet of three hydraulic dredge ships and two hydraulic suction dredge boats—referred to as “sucker” boats by the baymen—plow across the waters in search of their next haul. Unlike the baymen, these floating factories have no limit on how much shellfish they can take each day.

Once they find their targets, the hydraulic dredge ships utilize cutting blades that tear into the shell bed while highly pressurized jets of water slice the sediment, break it up, emulsify the bottom and push the clams into the back of the dredge. The sucker boats literally siphon the clams and oysters from their sub-aquatic beds like a vacuum—along with anything else that might be down there, say the baymen—and are regularly seen accompanied by clouds of seagulls, which nose-dive and feed from a dark muddy slick left in the ship’s wake.

“This is like a strip-mining operation,” says Painter, pointing across the harbor. “They strip it, and they re-put their product on it… Their program is perfect for replanting shellfish… But as far as for fish, wildlife, and this whole bullshit thing that this is a federal wildlife-protected harbor, that’s a fairytale.

“If Oyster Bay Harbor is a federally protected fish and wildlife refuge, how can you let the sucker boat and the dredge boats work?” says Fetzer. “The sucker boats are killing baby fish, fish eggs, crabs. They’re silting up the water, which is choking the saltgrasses that run along the shallows of the bay. You could be exposing the environment and people to heavy metals which have been dormant, that you’re exposing again. And not only does the sucker boats churn this up and spit them out in the water either dead or stunned, or killed, but they could sit up on the deck for hours and just die because they’re out of water.

“That’s when the seagulls eat them like they’re potato chips,” he continues, adding that he’s witnessed the carnage firsthand. “They’ve sucked eight-pound blackfish. They’ve sucked five-pound fluke. They’ve sucked up eels. They suck up horseshoe crabs.”

VIEW OUR “CLAM WARS” MULTIMEDIA PRESENTATION, INCLUDING MORE IMAGES AND VIDEO AT www.longislandpress.com/clamwars

The baymen aren’t the only ones disputing the use of hydraulic dredging. It’s a battle that has been waged before—Maryland and Virginia have banned the practice, among other states—and is at the forefront right now, on the East End as well as all the way up to Albany. Recent attempts by Suffolk County and other local municipalities to revive the Island’s shellfishing industry by soliciting applications for the leasing of underwater shellfish beds in the Peconic and Gardiner’s Bay have resurrected the age-old controversy. Two bills currently before the state legislature would bring the practice back to these estuaries under the county’s new aquaculture lease program.

That has Kevin McAllister, of nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper, up in arms.

“The disturbance of the bottom has collateral damages to it,” he stresses. “You could wipe out a spawning season, or spawning areas, where certain eggs are being laid, not to mention knocking out other organisms that are part of the ecology in the bay… It isn’t just you’re dredging up the bottom. You’re hammering it in a sense; you’re knocking out other critters that are important in the benthic community.”

“It takes many, many, many years for the ecosystem to develop,” explains Tom Farrell, vice president of the 12,000-member nonprofit New York Coalition for Recreational Fishing, which sent a letter to state lawmakers opposing the dredging bills. He stresses its potentially devastating impacts to the estuaries, “and they can very well virtually destroy it overnight.

“You ever look at the moon, the pictures of the moon, with the craters all over them?” he asks. “That’s exactly what the bottom looks like after a dredge sucks down.”

With Flower operating “an average of six hydraulic dredge boats on a daily basis,” charges the suit, “based on calculations allowing an 80-percent bottom time for dredges, six boats will replace and suspend approximately 13,440 cubic yards of material a day.”

For context, a large tractor trailer holds 35 cubic yards.

Even the bay constable interviewed by the Press acknowledges the detrimental impacts of Flower’s dredging within Oyster Bay Harbor.

“I think it destroys the bay,” he says, soberly. “I mean you’re taking a fire hose and squirting the bottom of the bay. All the eggs and anything—any hatchlings or anything like that—just get completely, especially flounders, destroyed.”

Where other environmental advocates and groups are vocal about the damage wreaked by the dredges, however, the nonprofit Friends of the Bay, whose stated mission statement is “to preserve, protect and restore the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Estuary and the surrounding watershed,” and whose headquarters are about a block from the harbor—within view of Flower’s operations—has to date been silent on the issue.

“I have to choose my words wisely here, because the owner of Frank M. Flowers [David Relyea] is one of our board members,” says Friends of the Bay’s executive director, Patricia Aitken, when asked whether her group would support a cessation of Flower’s hydraulic dredging.

The baymen, who seek such a halting of activities until an environmental analysis is conducted to ensure it’s safe for marine life in the estuary, allege a conflict of interest, a charge Aitken denies.

“We’re not deciding whether the study’s going to be done or not; we’re not making that decision,” she explains. “It’s no conflict of interest for us, because we’re not the ones doing the study.

“I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t here if I say yes or no,” she replied when asked whether Friends of the Bay would support such an analysis. “Friends of the Bay wants what’s best for the harbor and for the environment, and that’s what we’ve always been about: what’s best for the harbor.”

“We have always been about protecting the water quality and the harbor, that’s where we come down on this,” she continues, agreeing to check out the dredges for herself. “I don’t have a stand [on hydraulic dredging] right now because I need information. I’m not going to take a stand unless I have information… We always want to see independent, scientific assessments.”

A Pirate’s Life

No matter what happens within the courtroom, says Fetzer, aboard his skiff Rollic, somewhere out in the water of Oyster Bay Harbor, beneath a warm sun, clear, blue sky, with a full rake of clams ready for the culling, he’s at peace with his decision to finally take a stand.

“Whatever the outcome of this—be it in our favor or not in our favor—if it’s in our favor, we’re helping future generations,” he says. “And if it goes belly-up on our face, we have exactly what we have now.

“It’s easy to do nothing,” he adds. “It’s hard to do something.”

VIEW OUR “CLAM WARS” MULTIMEDIA PRESENTATION, INCLUDING MORE IMAGES AND VIDEO AT www.longislandpress.com/clamwars

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