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Attorney general probes surf-clam fishery

A file photo of cages of clams aboard

A file photo of cages of clams aboard a fishing boat. Credit: AP

The New York State attorney general has begun a preliminary probe into whether the Long Island surf-clam fishery is largely controlled by a complex network of out-of-state companies, according to a person close to the probe.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has "informally been looking at ownership of surf-clam boats [and permits] and the buying and processing of the clams," the person said.

In addition, during the past several weeks, an investigator for the attorney general met with two Long Island clammers to determine whether to launch a full-scale probe of the market, according to the clammers, Robert Hart of Sayville and Leann Smith of Islip Terrace. Both are owners of what has been characterized as the last remaining independent Long Island surf-clam companies in the fishery, which exists in state waters within three miles off Long Island's South Shore.

In June, Newsday reported that companies with links to New Jersey brothers Leroy and Martin Truex now have a hand in most of the roughly 300,000 bushels -- about 30 million surf clams -- taken annually in New York waters from Far Rockaway to Smith Point.

The companies hold nearly 70 percent of the 23 New York permits, according to state records and interviews. The brothers also are principal investors in Sea Watch International, a Maryland company that long has purchased the Long Island surf-clam harvest -- a fishery valued at $6 million annually.

Calls to Sea Watch and the Truexes, who have not been accused of any wrongdoing, were not returned.

A representative for Schneiderman said, "We cannot comment on ongoing or potential investigations."

J. Lee Snead, a Bellport attorney for many of the companies with Truex ties, said a reporter's call was the first he'd heard of the attorney general's probe.

"I don't know anything about it," he said, adding, "This industry has been looked at nine different ways for the past two decades. . . . I don't know what the focus of this alleged investigation is."

Snead said, "Each of the New York corporations I represent is in fact a New York corporation run by New York people manned by New York captains and New York deck hands. It's amazing to me this continues to be an issue, especially when DEC has known all along what is going on. We comply with the regulations."

Hart said he met with an investigator for the attorney general's office at the Setauket offices of the Department of Environmental Conservation, which has separately said it was "looking into" surf-clam permit ownership. He said a DEC official was present during the attorney general's interview.

Emily DeSantis, a DEC spokeswoman, referred questions about the matter to Schneiderman's office, adding, "If there is an investigation, we would cooperate."

Hart, citing an inability to sell surf-clams to Sea Watch, said he told the attorney general's investigator, "We're just about out of business here. There's no way I can lease or buy any allocation because I can't compete against the Truexes."

Smith, who was a member of the recently disbanded surf-clam management advisory board, said she met with the investigator the same day as Hart. She said Truex-tied companies have in the past cooperatively harvested her family's quota of surf-clams, part of a law that passed the state legislature last year that allowed widespread consolidation in the surf-clam industry.

"I said I would stand behind whatever the attorney general is doing," Smith said.Mark Middleton, who is listed as a lobbyist for a coalition of surf-clammers and has in the past been a consultant to Sea Watch, according to his website, said he was unaware of any probe.

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