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Nature Notes: Too Many Oysters?

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 14:56

I hope you all read last week’s letters to The Star. The one that stimulated me the most was the one from Brad Loewen. It brought to mind a recurring question I’ve had: We are spending a lot of money trying to make the estuary more productive, but is it working? Are all of these efforts to “save the bays” by seeding more and more oysters going to improve overall aquatic productivity? The late Stuart Vorpahl frequently reminded us that productivity can be cyclical. He was a keen observer of the ups and downs in population of this and that fishery. When fish or shellfish were wanting, he turned to welding — most of our local fishermen know more ways than one to make a living.

Fishing and farming are two of the world’s oldest occupations. Those who practice them are used to ups and downs, they know how to survive when the catches and harvests are not up to par. But we who don’t fish or farm for a living often have what some would call better ideas. We get impatient waiting for the delicious taste of bay scallops or blowfish, of sweet corn or sweet peas. We stir the pot with our own naive ideas, most of which never work when put into action.

Before the Hurricane of 1938, which opened up many Long Island bays and “cricks” to Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound water, oysters were big. They prefer lower salinities than those prevailing in the those two aforementioned great bodies of seawater. They were kings among the aquatic shellfish hauls for many a year until that storm.

With more seawater entering the south bays, say, by way of the newly formed Shinnecock and other south bay inlets, oysters gave way to hard clams, and hard clams became king for more than 60 years. When their numbers were suddenly reduced sharply — no one knows just why — the scientific pundits got together and said that we had to do something quick. The Nature Conservancy got involved, government grants were distributed locally, but despite gigantic efforts and the expenditure of much money, the south bays’ clamming days were over.

All the while, Long Island’s population was growing, more and more pollutants — sewage and other chemicals from farming, manufacturing, and the like — further contaminated the bays and the bay bottoms. When a hurricane or big northeaster came along, the bottoms were roiled up and productivity took a nosedive. For many years after the 1938 Hurricane — except 1944, when there was a hurricane in September — the bays got a break. Weakfish

became big in the Peconics, hard clams took over the south bays and in the late 1940s and 1950s, bay scallops began to appear in commercially harvestable numbers.

The bay fishermen who used tried and true methods — some of which dated back to the reign of the Native Americans — to catch this and that salable and edible finfish or shelfish, made a living, sometimes a very good one. Fish traps were filling up with porgies and sea bass. The harvesting of soft clams, hard clams, scallops, blue crabs, and eels was profitable, and catching bait to be used by “sporties” was yet another way to make a living.

But after the appearance of the brown tide that turned the seas upside down again in the 1980s, certain shellfish, in particular, the scallops, nose-dived and the eelgrass beds began to suffer, too. More waters were closed to shellfishing because of high coliform counts. Things were dire indeed. Commercial beach seining was outlawed by the state authorities. That very old practice had been a mainstay since the end of the whaling days and brought diverse fishermen together to set and pull in nets hundreds of yards long. “What can we do, what can we do?” became the chant. Marine scientists and politicians jumped in and said in one loud voice, “aquaculture will save us.”

Just about every town on Long Island turned to aquaculture. For a while it worked, or at least it appeared to work. Bay fishing provided a living, if meager, in some quarters, but then a new and hideous horror appeared in the new millennium: colored plankton waves and blue-green algae (bacteria) overtook many waters, especially those such as Georgica Pond, the Great South Bay, Shinnecock Bay, and so on, which had had a long history of on-and- off productivity.

“Why not raise and seed oysters?” became the next hue and cry. So oysters became the magic bullet. Just about every Tom, Dick, and Harry (not bay fishermen, mind you) turned to oysters. Yes, oysters are good eating and one might make a living catching and selling them, but in the long run will coating the bottoms of all our bay waters with oysters work? And will they eat the plankton, especially those poisonous and populous phytoplankton? Maybe not.

But what eats blue-green algae? Just as pundits were wrestling with those questions, all of a sudden, for the first time since they had been slowly recovering after the brown tides of the 1980s, bay scallops were largely gone from the Peconics.

“Why not more aquaculture?” became a second hue and cry. More aquaculture facilities have been planned, presumably to up oyster and bay scallop production, but again, some of the wisest and most committed bay fishermen have questioned such a move. Why spend more money on something that might not work in the long run? “What can we do?” some of us asked out of desperation. Alas, we can no longer look to the late Stuart Vorpahl for guidance. Perhaps we should call on Brad Loewen.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].

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