Babylon has taken a step toward maintaining its hard-shell clam population and preserving the traditions of families that have harvested them in town waters for generations.

The town board last week passed new rules for commercial clamming, which will allow up to 27 commercial endorsements to be issued annually, each giving the right to take 2,000 hard clams per day from the bay. Preference will be given to applicants who held permits last year or have a history of family involvement in clamming in the Great South Bay.

"Our goal is to maintain the hard-shell clam population," said Councilman Lindsay Henry, who helped write the legislation. But, he admitted that its numbers might be optimistic: Just 10 licenses were issued last year, he said. "There's no demand. . . . There [are] not a lot of clams out there, so it's just some old-timers who've been doing it forever. There are very few guys starting up."

The rules are meant to cause minimal interference for baymen who are still working, he said, and will not require clammers to report their takes to the town. A proposal to report the takes, which The Nature Conservancy supported this year as a tool to monitor the meager clam population, was opposed by many clammers and some town board members who said the paperwork would be onerous and duplicate state reporting requirements.

The change won the support of Nancy Solomon, director of Long Island Traditions, which works to preserve the region's maritime and farming cultures. "These rules reflect the kind of compassion and understanding that I wish other towns had toward their local shellfishermen, especially those families that have traditionally harvested the area waters," she said.

The Nature Conservancy praised the rules as a step toward a "healthy and sustainable fishery" Nathan Woiwode, a policy issues adviser for the group, said at last week's meeting.

When the Great South Bay clam industry was at its height, in 1976, baymen pulled 700,000 bushels of clams out of the water here, selling dockside for $16.9 million. Babylon, Brookhaven and Islip collectively issued 6,500 clamming permits that year.

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But overharvesting and poor water quality led to a drop-off in the clam population as rapid as it was catastrophic. By 1980, the harvest had dropped by half; last year, Henry said, about 1,000 bushels were harvested from Babylon waters.