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Notable Edibles: Creating a Clam Sanctuary in Shinnecock Bay

There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but there aren’t nearly enough shellfish in Shinnecock Bay. There the effects of decades of overfishing, habitat loss and disease have collided, prompting what scientists call a negative feedback loop in the bay. It is, in layman’s terms, a very vicious cycle. Clams and oysters, those small but impossibly mighty players in our ecosystem, are dying; harmful brown and red tides are rolling in; and the water quality is suffering. Luckily, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program has been monitoring the situation, and working to improve it, for years.

Founded by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program (ShiRP) is populated primarily by graduate students and professors, many of whom have been studying the bay for decades. “Which is what makes our organization so unique,” says Christine Santora, ShiRP’s program coordinator. “We’re not just activists. Everything we do—research, restoration, outreach—is rigorously grounded in science.” So, too, are the organization’s objectives.

Just as a healthy body is generally equipped to ward off or fight infection, a healthy and thriving ecosystem in the bay could and should be able to reduce the occurrence of brown and red tides or harmful algal blooms. The question, then, is how to restore the bay and its brown water back to health, back to being an estuary with clear water and productive fisheries. The answer, says Santora, is in the research.

“Right now our restoration efforts have three parts. First, we’re working to expand the bay’s remaining eelgrass beds. We’re also stocking and restocking seaweed in the bay, which will help to filter the water. And finally we’re installing clam sanctuaries throughout the bay to increase shellfish population. Because, in trying to understand the bay’s problems, we found that its existing clam colonies are so sparse that the clams just aren’t close enough to reproduce effectively. And we want clams in that water. The more clams, the cleaner it is.”

But the installation of clam sanctuaries is complicated. Once ShiRP obtains the clams, they have only 36 hours to install them, and installation can only happen during certain times of the year. “April through June and then October through November,” says Santora, “and it isn’t cheap.”

To help raise money for their shellfish restoration efforts, ShiRP held their first annual Clams for Clams Fundraiser last year in Southampton. It was a rousing success—they raised $55,000—and resulted in the installation of new clam sanctuaries. Santora hopes this year’s fund-raiser, date still to be announced, will be more successful still. And for good reason: “You can’t put a price on clean water,” she says decisively. “And if anyone knows and values that, it’s East Enders.”

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