Long Island's imperiled shellfish industry is getting a boost from a Mount Sinai hatchery that has added millions of young clams and oysters to local waters.
Officials and scientists said they think the 30-year-old hatchery, at the Town of Brookhaven's Cedar Beach, can help preserve a disappearing piece of Long Island maritime culture -- and improve water quality in area bays.
Last year, the hatchery placed about 3 million oyster and clam seeds in Mount Sinai and Port Jefferson harbors, the Great South Bay and bays along the North Shore. Hundreds of thousands of juvenile bivalves will be lowered into those waters again this fall.
"On a small harbor like Mount Sinai Harbor, we can make a significant difference," said Tom Carrano, assistant waterways management supervisor at the hatchery.
The program started in 1984, when the Island's shellfish industry was beginning to struggle due to overharvesting, brown tide and algae blooms.
Since 1980, the number of full-time baymen working Island waters has declined from about 7,000 to a few dozen, said Christopher Gobler, a Stony Brook University marine sciences professor. Landings of clams, mussels, oysters and scallops have dropped 70 to 95 percent during the same period, he said. He said the Cedar Beach hatchery can help spark a comeback.
"There is interest amongst Long Islanders in rebuilding these shellfish stocks," Gobler said. "People recognize that first, how abundant they were, and two, that it was really a big part of the culture of Long Island. Most importantly, people recognize how important shellfish were for maintaining good water quality."
The hatchery features about 44 tanks, each containing several dozen mollusks purchased from an Islip hatchery. Water from Mount Sinai Harbor is pumped into the tanks to nourish the tiny seeds as they grow.
"Everything is done by hand, by us," said bay management specialist Craig Strong.
Oysters and clams spend the winter in the bays, protected by cages while their shells harden. In the spring, specialists will decide which seeds have developed shells strong enough to fend off predators such as crabs. About 75 percent of seeds survive into adulthood.
Oysters raised at the hatchery have a distinctive black mark; clams have a unique red stripe. The town also donates seeds to programs such as Western Suffolk BOCES.
The hatchery costs the town about $50,000 a year -- money well spent in the eyes of officials such as Councilwoman Jane Bonner. "You can't put a dollar amount on how much they clean the water," she said.
Officials say the local shellfish industry might never be what it once was. But they hope the hatchery helps save it from extinction.
"If we can make the water a little bit cleaner, or help someone make a little bit more money in the summer," Carrano said, "then we're doing our job."Shellfish seeds from the Town of Brookhaven hatchery planted in local waters last year:
Oysters planted in Mount Sinai and Port Jefferson harbors
Clams in Great South Bay
Clams in North Shore embayments