Less Pollution, or More Oysters?

OystersWriting this month’s canvas articles really opened my eyes. Last month, I was taking my old motorboat out for its initial run, after putting it on the mooring in Cold Spring Harbor. With more than 25 years under her belt, the Krusty Krab still plies the local waters confidently, and I was glad to see that everything was running well. I took a run up to the Sand Hole in Lloyd Neck, and noticed some baymen working the mud flats for clams at low tide. It seemed like—if you didn’t have to do it every day for a living—clamming could be a lot of fun. That inspired me to write July’s “Tasting Notes” column about one of my favorite dishes: linguine with white clam sauce, which my wife happens to specialize in. I figured, I would drink a few beers and see how many local clams I could bring home for Jen to cook.

While I was out there, I asked my fellow clammers about techniques and where to hunt them, and was surprised to discover that clamming—and shellfishing in general—was a dying industry on Long Island. I had heard of the brown tides and trouble with the local lobster harvests, but I had simply assumed—what with the “Oyster Festival” and a lengthy Long Island history of shellfishing—that the Island was still a major producer of clams, scallops, and oysters. I discovered that I couldn’t be more wrong.

I started to look into the situation further, and ended up talking with the head of the New York Seafood Council, Roger Tollefsen. He explained that Long Island, which once was the leading exporter of bay scallops, has been comparatively bereft of shellfish for the past quarter-century. I was surprised to learn that the harvests are so small, that New York no longer exports its shellfish. With the massive local focus on the environment—especially around Peconic Bay, which has become one of the world’s most pristine estuary systems—I had imagined Long Island would be teeming with seafood. I couldn’t be more wrong. Roger explained that the problem was that Peconic Bay had become too clean.

I wondered if it was really possible for an ecosystem to be too clean? Roger’s take on the situation was highly compelling. Basically, he argues that by taking out all of the pollution out of Peconic Bay, the scallops and clams have nothing left to eat.The science seems to bear out the argument. So, I guess we are stuck with a very pristine Bay, but decimated seafood industry. As someone who loves the environment and shellfish, it makes for a tough choice. Like the proverbial beat of the butterfly’s wing, everything we do in a closed system affects everything else. In the Peconic Bay, taking all of the nitrogen out of the water makes it very difficult for shellfish to spawn and grow naturally.

I don’t know whether or not adding more waste into the bay and bringing back the shellfish is the right thing to do, but it’s going to require a lot of thought and hard choices. The solutions that are correct for other estuary systems may not be right for ours. As a writer for the leading magazine on Long Island covering sustainability, it would be easy to simply present The Nature Conservancy’s stance, which is the politically correct viewpoint. I think it is more interesting to see how real people are affected by environmental policies, and learn more.

I don’t know if putting more waste into our bays to promote shellfish is the right thing to do, but I know that a Long Island without a decent oyster is just wrong. Food for thought.

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