Tempers Flare as Baymen Demand Answers

Clamming at Maidstone Durell Godfrey

Frustration boiled over as a group of commercial shellfishermen confronted the East Hampton Town Trustees Tuesday about the efficacy of the town shellfish hatchery’s annual seeding program, which the trustees help fund. The meeting was marked by multiple angry exchanges and those in the small room in the town’s Lamb Building on Bluff Road, Amagansett, talking over one another. When the shouting was over, all agreed that a survey after the seeding was completed would be in everyone’s interest.

The hatchery, on the shore of Fort Pond Bay in Montauk, was established in 1989, four years after algal blooms began sweeping through local waterways and decimating shellfish. Its staff of five, two of whom work part time, oversee the spawning of millions of clams, oysters, and scallops, which are then put in Northwest, Three Mile, Accabonac, and Napeague Harbors as well as Hog Creek and Lake Montauk.

“There are large amounts of clams that are being put out in these places, millions of seeds,” Greg Verity, one of the angry baymen, said. “They’re simply not there, they haven’t been there for five years.”  He added that the seeded clams that are found look noticeably different from those that grow naturally.

Deborah Klughers, a trustee, said there were many reasons why the seeded clams would be hard to find, such as recreational clammers, those harvesting without a license, natural die-off, predators, and the spraying of insecticides to reduce mosquitoes. “Our aquaculture program is, I’d say, the finest on Long Island,” she said.

“The finest on Long Island?” Mr. Verity responded angrily. “Where are all our clams? Where are all our commercial shellfishermen?” He said he had asked John Dunne, the hatchery’s director, if a survey had been done, but the answer was no. “Millions of clam seed, all this money spent. Where is it? Because I can’t find it. . . . It should be a top priority to find out whether this stuff is living or not before they continue to put the stuff in the same places.”

 Anthony Sciffedi, another fisherman among the half-dozen who sat in the room or crowded into its entryway, agreed that a survey was needed. “It’s nice that we’re trying, but it’s getting less and less and worse and worse,” he said.

Stephanie Forsberg, a trustee who has a doctorate in marine science, reviewed the reasons for the decline of shellfish. “I’ve worked specifically on climate change and how that was affecting our local bay scallop, oyster, and clam population. . . . I’ve written several papers on this and have to say it’s scary, what we as society are doing, not just locally but globally. It has to do with ocean acidification, with pollution, with spraying.” Dr. Forsberg detailed the water-quality monitoring implemented last year with Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University. “The thought is, if we can get this data, we can go back and work with our constituents, our other levels of government — the town board, and higher; go to the county, go to the state, and start being part of the solution. I hear you, but you can’t just point at the hatchery.” But she was frequently interrupted, prompting the ire of Diane McNally, the trustees’ presiding officer.

“Don’t interrupt the clerk when she’s speaking,” Ms. Forsberg later told Mr. Verityas he spoke over Ms. McNally. “What would you like us to do?” Ms. McNally asked. “Ask the town to remove the support of the aquaculture facility?” Mr. Verity repeated that, at the least, he wanted a survey.

Order deteriorated as others spoke over one another. “Hey!” Ms. McNally yelled, banging a gavel hard on the table. “Enough! What I am going to ask is if you have a concern, put it in writing so I know specifically what your concern is, how you’d like us to address it.”

Mr. Dunne said the hatchery distributes maps that indicate the quantity of shellfish seeded in particular waterways. “I’m not sure what other proof you need other than a nursery and field full of clams, numbers in our annual report, on our maps,” he said. “I have no incentive to make this stuff up.” Because his staff is minimal, Mr. Dunne said the hatchery must rely on anecdotal information from commercial and recreational fishermen. He had recently heard positive reports, he said, “but it also concerns me that there’s six, seven of you here that are having problems finding clams. . . . I’d be more than happy to do surveys, but honestly, the time to do surveys is the fall when everything is seeded.”

Mr. Verity continued to interrupt until Brian Byrnes, a trustee, told him, “This can’t continue like this. Otherwise, we will have to ask you to leave. I don’t want to do that, but I will.” Mr. Verity said he didn’t want the aquaculture program to be disbanded, but “I want there to be somebody to show me that this stuff is there.” 

“We will all try to work together,” Ms McNally said. “We can at least modify our policies and procedures, but you have to realize, the number of recreational shellfishers are increasing exponentially.” The trustees are concerned, Mr. Byrnes said, “and frankly a little alarmed, and will get to the bottom of it one way or another, because that’s what we do.”