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Suozzi, environmentalists call for safer shellfish harvesting

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U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi met with members of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association and several environmental agencies at the Bridge Marine in Bayville on Monday to announce he would be joining them in petitioning the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The groups, and Suozzi, will request the re-evaluation of the permits issued to commercial shellfishing company Frank M. Flower & Sons. The company uses hydraulic dredging techniques when harvesting shellfish, which some experts believe is harmful to the bay.

“Hydraulic shellfish dredging has had a serious impact on the quality of the water and the biodiversity in and around Oyster Bay,” Suozzi said. “I am calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to re-examine its permitting processes for this type of shellfish harvesting. We need to protect our natural resources by promoting sustainable practices that enhance the fragile ecological balance of these waters.”

Bob Wemyss, secretary of the Baymen’s Association, said that Flower uses boats with 80- to 90-foot suction dredges to harvest shellfish and move around other marine life. Water is shot at high pressure up to 18 inches into the bottom of the Sound, Wemyss said, to break it up so a mechanical dredge can move through it and gather shellfish. This method, he said, spreads sediment  throughout the bay, potentially smothering and killing other marine life.

Wemyss said that the Army Corps made a big mistake by not requiring Flower to obtain a discharge permit, under the state Clean Water Act. State law, he said, dictates that any turbidity — water’s loss of transparency due to the presence of suspended particles — that can be seen by the naked eye is subject to water quality certification from the state Department of Conservation. The issue, he said, is that if the Army Corps does not require a discharge permit, a state’s water quality certificate is not required.

Flower & Sons had not responded to a number of calls requesting comment as the Herald Guardian went to press on Thursday.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, secured a $75,000 grant for scientists at Stony Brook University to conduct an independent study to determine the environmental impact of hydraulic dredging in Oyster Bay. The study is set to start in October, and is expected to take roughly a year to complete. The Army Corps of Engineers can still re-evaluate the permitting process before the results of the study are known.

Doug Rodgers, vice president of the Baymen’s Association, said that environmental issues do not affect Flower’s harvesting, because the company concentrates on seeding its own shellfish. But when it does so, the sediment that is stirred up is directed away from its private fields to the public fields, where other baymen harvest. The issue, Rodgers said, has gone unaddressed for too long, and he is grateful for the attention it is receiving now.

“Now we have a couple of people that are actually starting to listen,” Rodgers said. “We’re hoping that with some letters and maybe looking into the situation a little bit more in-depth and the study that’s about to happen, they’ll see what the baymen have seen every day for the last 20 or 30 years.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the waters of Oyster Bay are a public resource. One business’s interest cannot exceed the public interest, she said, which is the case in this situation. The bay is known for its wildlife, and by disrupting the sediment — known as the benthic region — Flower & Sons is disrupting the environment, she added.

“The bottom line here is that hydraulic dredging and suction dredging are really outdated, destructive, antiquated methods of harvesting shellfish,” Esposito said. “They destroy the benthic region and the clarity of the water. That reduces oxygen levels and threatens all the species within the water.”

Esposito said that Flower is responsible for doing its part to maintain the bay’s environment, which she said requires government intervention at this point.

Suozzi said that environmental issues like this one can come down to dissenters saying that the science is inconclusive and that no one has exact answers. This should not be the case here, however, he added.

“We have firsthand testimony from people that live on the water every single day . . . that will tell us that what’s really going on here with this method of dredging is destructive to the sea life, to the biodiversity, to the species that live here in this very special place,” Suozzi said, “and we want it to be stopped.”

Baymen’s Association President Bill Painter said the baymen use environmentally safe methods of harvesting shellfish, which include using steel rakes to comb the sea floor. This type of harvest, he said, minimizes the disturbance of the bay bottom.

Painter said it would be possible for Flower to adopt this method of harvesting and still make money. However, he is skeptical of the company’s willingness to change, he said, even though a healthier bay would help all parties in the long run.

“This isn’t about putting Flower out of business — it’s getting them to change their business, so that the baymen can also stay in business,” Esposito said. “This is about getting Flower to change to a sustainable business practice and understand that their actions cannot adversely and negatively impact the other baymen who utilize the resource.”