Boat captains and deckhands for Long Island's largest oyster and clam farming company are back out on the waters after a three-week freeze in shellfish harvesting.

The return marks relief from a difficult winter for the Island's two dozen or so shellfish farming operations.

For nearly a month, boats of Oyster Bay-based Frank M. Flower & Sons were unable to traverse the 1,800 acres in the bay it leases from the Town of Oyster Bay because large swaths of water were frozen. At 7:30 a.m. Monday, they took to the water once again.

"We thought last year's winter was bad with all the snow, but this was worse," said Christa Relyea, business manager for the nearly 130-year-old shellfish-farming company. The ice "can actually cut like a razor and really destroy your boat," she said.

On Long Island, an estimated 20 million oysters and 15 million clams were sold for a dockside value of $9 million and $2.7 million, respectively, in 2009, according to the latest data from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

Gregg Rivara, aquaculture specialist with the Cooperative Extension, said this winter has been exceptionally hard on the industry. "If you go to fish markets and restaurants, you're going to have a hard time finding shellfish from Long Island," Rivara said.

Tom Kehoe, co-owner of K&B Seafood Inc., said the ice has limited his East Northport seafood wholesaler's ability to buy some items from anywhere in the Northeast.

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"We haven't had a pound of mussels to sell in about three weeks," he said. "The little bit of shellfish we've been able to get our hands on has almost doubled in price."

While Flower & Sons said the cold hasn't hurt the oysters and clams in its waters, the company is concerned about getting its sales and six ships back on course. During peak winter harvest times, Flower & Sons could expect to harvest roughly 3,000 bushels of oysters and 6,700 bushels of clams each week.

During the freeze, the company, which plants about 100 million clams and oysters each year, had to assign its 50 employees to jobs such as general maintenance and boat repair to keep people working.

"We're very fortunate we didn't have to lay anyone off," Relyea said.

In the past three weeks, ships with the U.S. Coast Guard made four trips through the area in an attempt to break the ice over the bay, but consistent frigid winds kept pushing sections of ice closer to the shore. It wasn't until temperatures began to rise and winds shifted that the efforts worked, Relyea said.

"Everybody's been having a tough time with this weather," she said. "The plumbers were the only ones who were happy with this winter."