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Clam Restoration Has Spearheaded Ecological Reversal In Shinnecock Bay, Study Shows

Newsday, Editorial, 9/12/22 

Shinnecock Bay has seen a sweeping reversal of once chronic misfortunes in the last 10 years, spurred seemingly simply by the depositing of millions of clams in just two well chosen corners of its sandy bottoms, scientists from Stony Brook University attest in a new peer-reviewed paper released on Tuesday, August 30.

When the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project project began in 2012, the western lobe of the bay was an ecological desert, barren of shellfish and seagrass, and beset by annual “brown tide” algal blooms that were the densest ever recorded, choking out any efforts by marine life to establish itself. 

Since then, however, the report finds that brown tides have vanished, more than 100 acres of new seagrass beds have sprouted from the bay bottoms, and the number of hard clams being harvested from the eastern portion of the bay has soared by 1,700 percent. 

“We’ve seen a statistically significant increase in water clarity and a statistically significant decrease in the levels of algae — and the end of brown tides, once the scourge of Shinnecock Bay that occurred year after year … despite the fact that they have continued annually in Great South Bay,” Dr. Christopher Gobler, one of the professors at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmosphere Sciences who authored the paper, said on Tuesday morning at the announcement of its publication at the Marine Sciences Center at the Stony Brook Southampton campus in Shinnecock Hills. 

“When we began this program, Great South Bay was the greatest hard clam fishery in New York State, and Shinnecock Bay, because it is 10 times smaller, was always a

fraction of the harvest in Great South Bay,” he said. “Today, the landings of hard clams in Shinnecock Bay exceed the landings in Great South Bay, despite it being 10 percent of its size.” 

The success of the restoration project carries wide-ranging hope for the efforts to combat the ill effects of harmful algal blooms and water pollution that have plagued local waters in recent decades, largely because of its relative simplicity. 

The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project’s success was driven largely by the realization, after decades of research, that the collapse of the hard clam population in its waters had allowed myriad other issues to cascade, and that reestablishing the clams could have wide-ranging benefits. 

While “seeding” of hard clams and other shellfish had been done for years with only limited and fleeting success, the Stony Brook marine biologists have shown that by applying scientifically grounded research to where the clams should be placed, how many would be needed and how they should be distributed, they could change the long-term benefits of their reintroduction. 

“Hard clams are what’s known as ecosystem engineers,” Gobler said at Tuesday’s unveiling. “We used a decade of research about where they should go … what will make them survive, what will maximize their ability to reproduce and

ensure their offspring live and remain in the estuary.” 

The project’s foundation was the creation of two massive spawner sanctuaries — large sections of bay bottom where clams would be deposited in dense numbers to boost their ability to reproduce successfully. 

A key component of the restoration program’s success was the analysis of the tidal currents in the bay that carry the larval clams after they are spawned. The microscopic clam larvae are suspended in the water column for about two weeks, and the researchers showed that clams spawned in the northern portions of the western half of the bay would be carried in that time by currents through the channel running under the Ponquogue Bridge and into the northern reaches of the eastern bay, where they would drop to the bay bottom. Clams spawned in the eastern portion of the bay, however, the analysis showed, would be swiftly carried by currents out Shinnecock Inlet and provide no regenerative benefit to the bay at all. 

So the project scientist chose two areas, one in Tiana Bay the other at the mouth of Weesuck Creek, where they deposited more than 3 million clams over a period of five years. 

To protect the clams and let them churn out their valuable larvae, the project leaders worked with the Southampton

Town Trustees and Southampton Bayman’s Association to ensure the sanctuary areas would be left untouched by the commercial fishermen who work the bay. 

The deal has paid off in spades for the baymen. Gobler said the economic benefit of the newly revitalized hard clam harvest in the eastern portion of the bay has already been more than $3 million in harvested clams. 

Ed Warner Jr., a fourth-generation bayman and member of the Southampton Town Trustees, said on Monday that the clam stock in Shinnecock has breathed new life into the baymen’s community. 

“Basically, you can go to work in the bay every day again,” he said Tuesday. “Baymen always liked clamming, because it’s simple — you don’t have nets and lots of complicated gear. You can hop in your boat with your rake, and you can go make a day’s pay. But, 20 years ago, you couldn’t do that no more. I remember one winter going and catching literally a spackle bucket of clams — $40, $50. But I had a family and bills to pay.” 

The collapse of clamming and other shellfishing opportunities in they bay have whittled down the number of professional baymen from hundreds to just a handful. “Now,” he added, “there’s new trucks, there’s new boat engines, and there’s a few new faces.”

Warner said he hopes the success in Shinnecock Bay can be replicated in other water bodies and possibly help restore the even more valuable and tenuous bay scallop stocks. 

The Shinnecock Bay Restoration Project was funded primarily by the underwriting from the Laurie Landau Foundation and grants from the State Department of Environmental Conservation. 

“There are a few things that are really important to mention, and one of the most is to thank Laurie Landeau and Bob Maze for all that they have done,” Stony Brook University Provost Carl Lejuez said of the private donors who funded the bulk of the project. “They are not just generous supporters. They are engaged scientifically, they are engaged emotionally. They are real partners.” 

The hopefulness of the announcement about the restoration of clam stocks alone was enough to inspire hope amid a long stretch of grim discoveries of the impacts of climate change in local waters. 

“It’s nice to hear some good news about the environment for a change,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said on Tuesday. “Today is a big day. The promise that it holds is extraordinary that we can actually, through science, find a way back.”

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