Residents and those who visit Mill Neck and Bayville this summer will see and hear more than boats and seagulls in Mill Neck Creek. The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s granting of a permit to Frank M. Flower & Sons on March 31 has made it likely that the scene in the estuary, which is home to a clam bar and where people kayak, swim and sunbath, will include the sight, sound and smell of diesel-fueled hydraulic dredge boats harvesting clams.
Flower is a private shellfishing company that leases underwater acreage from the Town of Oyster Bay. Its new permit is in effect on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. until Oct. 10. A company boat was spotted working in the area on Tuesday.
“Why would they be allowed to do this now?” asked Bill Fetzer, a member of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association. “Everything is being born now. It’s a spawning area. They’re doing all of this to devastate this harbor because they don’t care about it.”
Flower’s attorney, James Cammarata, declined to comment.
Contention between Flower and NOBBA dates back decades, but it came to a head last summer, when the DEC granted Flower a permit to dredge the creek from May through September to transplant clams from an area it leased to another part of Oyster Bay.
Town officials and Friends of the Bay joined NOBBA in opposing the operation, claiming that Flower would destroy an important clam spawning area. The town even tried to stop the operation, filing last May for a temporary restraining order, which a state judge denied.
Even Gov. Kathy Hochul weighed in, supporting Flower, saying that since dredging has been done for years in Oyster Bay, the company should be able to continue.
But the sight of the dredge boat operating in the creek on Tuesday surprised everyone, especially since, according to Friends of the Bay, the DEC had promised to notify it and the town if any new permits were approved.
Jeff Wernick, a DEC spokesman, wrote in an email that the town was notified and given a copy of the permit on March 31, when Flower received it, before it could begin its operations on April 3. Town spokesman Brian Nevin said the email was sent to retired Deputy Commissioner George Baptista.
The transplant program, Wernick explained, is monitored by the agency to ensure permitted activities within harvest and cleansing areas are undertaken in compliance with permit conditions to protect public health.
“DEC continues to work in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Town of Oyster Bay, and permittee Frank M. Flowers to ensure all transplanting activities are conducted as approved under the authorizations provided by their lease and permits,” Wernick wrote.
Friends and NOBBA say that the DEC is neglecting its responsibility to protect the state’s wildlife resources and habitat, with Fetzer going as far as to say that Flower was “raping the harbor.”
“Friends of the Bay strongly opposes the relocation of these clams, because the uncertified waters of Mill Neck Creek serve as an undisturbed spawning sanctuary for shellfish,” Bill Bleyer, Friends’ president, said. “In addition, disturbing the creek bottom could potentially have a grave impact on other areas of the bay system, because the substrate in Mill Neck Creek contains excessive silt, which is likely to be resuspended and distributed to other areas of the bay, further compromising an already stressed habitat and potentially harming other marine species living in the creek.”
According to Wernick, the negative effects of the hydraulic dredging will not be a problem. “The potential resuspension of sediment from the shellfish harvesting activity is temporary and is not expected to have any long-term negative impacts on siltation in other areas of the creek or embayments in Oyster Bay,” he wrote.
Clams, oysters, flounder, herring and perch spawn in the creek, and seabirds, including tern, lay their eggs there.
Fetzer said he was worried. “We’re catching baby black fish and baby sea bass by the creek, which we throw back in,” he said. “It’s like a nursery there.”
Fetzer said he had seen otters in the area, too. And when he checked his traps on Wednesday, he found a dead eel, which was a first. Dredging causes all kinds of destruction on the creek bottom, he said.
What’s left behind after an area is dredged is an 11-foot trench, he explained, and heavy particles fall back in. “But it’s like a tornado running through,” Fetzer added. “And even if some of the clams survive, there’s no home for them anymore.”
Some say the baymen are only interested in shutting Flower down so they can have full reign of the bay. But according to Billy Painter, NOBBA’s president, no one works in the bay anymore.
“There’s no clams or oysters left (in the harbor) anymore,” Painter said. “The guys work the Sound now, where it’s rough and dangerous. Flower’s goal is to get every last clam in the harbor. But the timing of this has caught me by surprise. I never thought they’d go in there in the spring, when there’s spawning.”
Assemblyman Jake Blumencranz said he was unaware of the DEC’s potential approval of Flower’s permit when he introduced a bill in the Assembly on Feb. 27 to prohibit any new permits, leases or other agreements authorizing hydraulic dredging for commercial purposes in Mill Neck Creek.
Asked about the timing of the bill, four days before the permit was approved, Blumencranz said there are no coincidences in politics, and referred to a study by Stony Brook University that has not yet been released. “My legislation was based on the Stony Brook study,” he said. “Looks like I was right, and there’s a need for greater oversight in the waters of Mill Neck Creek.”
The bill would also prevent any existing permits or leases from being extended. But it wouldn’t nullify existing agreements.
“I felt it may be best to stop the practice after (Flower’s) contract was up,” Blumencranz said. “Or at least until we could see the final results of the research. The health and safety of the Sound is one of my priorities.”
The bill notes that the creek is a precious breeding ground for shellfish before they are transplanted into the bay by commercial fishermen, where they can clean themselves by filtering bay water before being harvested.
“Commercial dredging, which more efficiently collects the shellfish, also damages their natural breeding grounds and stirs up settled pollutants which are then dispersed throughout the waterways by tidal action,” the bill states. “Decades-old leases are set to expire, giving these breeding grounds the opportunity to recover and rebalancing the ecosystem.”
Blumencranz said that what’s holding the bill up is the budget. He hopes to have the bill passed by the end of the year.
“I want to help secure a better bay for the future,” he said. “The solution is to make sure when contracts are doled out this won’t be done in a place like Mill Neck Creek.”
For its part, the town is exploring legal responses to the dredging of the creek.
“The Town of Oyster Bay and local environmental advocacy groups have long been committed to protecting the environment, expanding marine life and preserving water quality in Oyster Bay Harbor,” Supervisor Joseph Saladino said. “We continue to strongly oppose all forms of harmful dredging in Mill Neck Creek based on environmental impact studies and damage to Oyster Bay Harbor.”
Saladino added that it was irresponsible for the DEC to issue a permit to Flower that will reverse years of progress made by the town and local environmental advocates to protect the harbor and local marine life.