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Stony Brook project helped restore Shinnecock Bay clam population, report says

By Mark Harringtonmark.harrington@newsday.comMHarringtonNews Mark Harrington, a Newsday reporter since 1999, covers energy, wineries, Indian affairs and fisheries. 

Updated August 30, 2022 

Clam restoration of Shinnecock Bay shows success 

Christopher Gobler, from Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and his team, on Friday said they were pleased to announce that after years of planting more than three million clams in the Shinnecock Bay, the water quality has improved significantly. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez 

A 10-year effort led by Stony Brook University marine scientists to create special "spawner sanctuaries" of hard-shelled clams in Shinnecock Bay

restored clam populations in a wider area while vastly improving water quality, a new scientific paper reports. 

Clam populations in Shinnecock Bay had collapsed around the time the work was initiated in 2012, according to the paper in Frontiers in Marine Science, with harvests dropping by 99.5%. 

To reverse the decline, the plan by a team of scientists led by Stony Brook's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences was to densely seed 64 newly designated spawner sanctuaries with more than 3.2 million adult clams, and to designate them "no-harvest" zones. The areas, which were identified after more than a decade of research and study of the bay, were chosen for their ideal qualities for clam spawning, with peak sediment and seawater conditions to retain larval clams. 

The clams were allowed to spawn undisturbed between 2012 and 2019. 

The results were dramatic. Spawning within the densely seeded not only intensified but also transported clams to areas outside the sanctuaries, where clam densities increased more than 18 fold over seven years, while harvests increased 16 fold over nine years, according to the paper. 

The research indicates that the higher clam densities led to faster rates of water filtration by the filter-feeding clams than is typical, to as little as 10 days compared with the usual three months. That faster filtration rate saw concurrent significant decreases of brown tide algae and chlorophyll. The work has also led to the restoration of critical sea-grass in the bay, researchers said, expanding sea-grass beds by some 100 acres. 

The results were so dramatic that projects have already begun to replicate the success in waterways around Long Island, said Christopher Gobler, an Stony Brook professor and director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook.

"Due to the early success," he said, he worked with former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Department of Environmental Conservation "to establish the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Project, which replicates what we did in Shinnecock in four other estuaries," including Bellport Bay, Huntington Harbor and Hempstead Bay. 

But the restoration of Shinnecock Bay isn't complete. Gobler said the work, funded in part by grants from the Laurie Landau Foundation, was conducted primarily in the eastern part of Shinnecock Bay. "In the western part, there's still work to be done," he said. 

Still, he said, the work appears to have set the stage for the elimination of brown tides, the "scourge of Shinnecock Bay," which hasn't experienced one since 2016. 

Hard-clam landings in Shinnecock Bay now exceed those of the Great South Bay, Gobler said, despite the area being around 10 times smaller. 

"This type of research has international implications," said State Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). 

Gobler acknowledged that creating no-harvest zones, which locked out local baymen from some traditional fishing grounds, was "critical" to the success of the work. "We wouldn't have had the results we did without them," he said. 

Ed Warner, a bayman and Southampton Town Trustee, who worked with researchers to build support for the restoration, said baymen can now make a living clamming in Shinnecock Bay while 40 years ago, a day's work might net a clammer half a bushel. "Everybody in our community is going to benefit," he said. 

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman called the promise of the work "extraordinary," demonstrating that "through science we can find a way

back" from the detrimental effects of pollution and climate change. 

The paper details ways similar spawner sanctuaries can be used in waterways around the globe. 

"Given these outcomes and the global need for rebuilding marine life, the implementation of spawner sanctuaries using the criteria set forth herein may be a promising approach for restoring hard clam and other bivalve populations in estuaries elsewhere," the paper states. 

"It's a blueprint not only for our area but regionally and nationally," said State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk).

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