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Will the harbor be barren in the future?

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A decade’s worth of contention between local clammers from the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association and Frank M. Flower & Sons, a commercial shellfishing company, is escalating. NOBBA has accused Flower of suction dredging Oyster Bay Harbor along West Shore Road, and relocating the dredged material to other areas Flower leases off Centre Island. The Oyster Bay environmental group Friends of the Bay says it is worried, too.

“Friends of the Bay is concerned about the possibility of Flower removing all of the shellfish in any area and leaving it barren for the future,” the group’s president, Bill Bleyer, wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to Col. Matthew Luzzatto, the commander and district engineer of the New York Army Corps of Engineers. 

Flower’s attorney, James Cammarata, said “there is no such thing” as suction dredging for clams. His client, he said, has the right to operate on the grounds that it leases. “Flower uses hydraulic harvesting for oysters only, which works like a vacuum cleaner,” Cammarata said. “Very rarely do they get a living organism other than the catch. Occasionally Flower gets a crab caught but the person working on the boat throws it back overboard.”

Robert Wemyss, the secretary of NOBBA, said that Flower has been suction dredging for many years, with H.B. Flower having patented the suction dredger in 1936.

“It is suction dredging, they just want to rename it,” Wemyss said. “The old suction dredger used a pump, and the oysters that passed through it were damaged and the snails killed. The new one that they use does the same thing. They have been dredging five days a week for 20 years.”

Wemyss, on behalf of NOBBA, sent an email on Oct. 28 to the state Department of Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of State, alleging that Flower is violating its Joint Application to the agencies. This is concerning to Friends because NOBBA is accusing Flower of suction dredging leased areas in Oyster Bay harbor that it will probably lose when the Town of Oyster Bay issues its new licensing requirements. Flower’s current 30-year contract, to lease roughly 1,400 acres of underwater land, will expire in 2024.

“Our concern is heightened because the Flower company has shut down its hatchery in Bayville,” Bleyer wrote, “and has not put new shellfish seed down on its leased beds for the last year.”

Cammarata said there was good reason not to plant this year: moon snails. The species attaches to the shells of immature clams and drills holes, killing the clams. “The prevalence of moon snails seriously damaged the 2018-2019 crop that was planted,” he said. “Moon snails are cyclical. If we planted, we could see more millions of product wiped out. But we have seen some moderation in the last month.”

Bleyer said in a phone interview that predators are not present in every part of the bay, and Flower could plant seed in these areas. The seeding should be ongoing, he said.

“The new licenses were supposed to stipulate that you can’t harvest if you don’t seed,” Bleyer said. “Otherwise there would be no advantage to the bay or environment to have commercial harvesting if they aren’t putting anything back.”

Billy Painter, the president of NOBBA, said that suction dredging, which Flower conducted for three weeks in October, is being done on natural hard clams, shells and slipper snails, which are being moved to lots off Center Island.

Slipper snails, which grow prolifically, firm up the bottom of the bay, giving small clams a safe haven to hide from predators. They are great for oysters, too, when they spawn, giving them something to cling to as they grow. 

“The transport of shells and slipper snails to other lots is not an immediate return,” Wemyss said. “Stripping the areas of shells and all the small organisms that live in the bottom changes the conditions of life on these lots and is a regulable modification of the aquatic environment.”

Friends of the Bay is hoping that the Army Corps will determine soon whether Flower is permitted to move the clams, shells and slipper snails to another location. “Friends of the Bay is concerned,” Bleyer said, “that if the baymen’s allegations are correct, then the process could be something like strip mining, where they were taking out a resource without putting anything back.”

He added that there is a need to ensure that the beds there will be able to support juvenile shellfish growth in the future.

No one should worry that Flower is stripping the Sound, Cammarata said, adding that that is a “myth.” There are naturally occurring conditions, like drought, that can destroy a crop, and harvesting shellfish is no different, he said.

Painter envisions the commitment of environmental groups like Friends to assist NOBBA as a new beginning. “I’m glad that Friends of the Bay are getting involved,” Painter said. “I think the town will listen to us more now.”

In June, the town issued a new request for proposal that has not been finalized. Flower, Mitch Kramer and Tom Thorton — board members at Friends of the Bay who acted as individuals — and NOBBA submitted applications to the town. All of the applications were denied.

In June, the town released its own request for proposal. It would allow for 800 acres of underwater land to be divided into six areas to be fished separately. The maximum acreage that could be leased to one company would be 700 acres. The purpose, the town said, is to encourage competition among shellfishing companies.