Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday announced what he called the largest clam and oyster restoration program in the nation, seeking to bring back at least partially the heyday when Long Island was known internationally for its production of bivalve sea life.
The state will spend $10.4 million on a program that will both repopulate clam and oyster beds and help purify local waters, since clams and oysters serve as natural filters of pollution, he said.
“We were producing for the entire country at one time,” Cuomo said at Halesite Fire Department in Huntington. “Now 99 percent of it is gone.”
He mostly blamed pollution for the decline.
Cuomo later took a boat tour of Huntington Harbor on Long Island Sound, where he and other officials threw in a small batch of clams and oysters to symbolically start the two-year program.
The project will be a joint venture between the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Stony Brook University, Cornell Cooperative Extension and local governments.
It will involve growing or purchasing and then depositing some 179 million clams and oysters in five sanctuaries on both shores of Long Island, Cuomo said.
The sanctuaries will be located in Shinnecock Bay, Bellport Bay, South Oyster Bay, Hempstead Bay on the South Shore, and Huntington Harbor on the North Shore.
The DEC and local marine scientists will operate 69 nurseries in locations throughout Long Island waters where they will grow baby bivalves until they are large enough to be safely deposited in the sanctuaries.
Some longtime baymen said that while they welcome efforts to bring back shellfish, they expect this one to meet the same fate of numerous others attempted in the past: failure.
“We have very few good examples where these hatcheries have worked,” said Roger Tollefsen of Hampton Bays, a former president of the New York Seafood Council. He called it “like putting seed on nonfertile soil.”
Cuomo said he believes the program will work because scientists have learned from previous mistakes. For instance, higher densities of the shellfish must be placed together to reproduce, and initially not in heavily polluted waters, he said.
Long Island was so famous for its clam population in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s that locals joked you could walk across Great South Bay by stepping from clam boat to clam boat used by teenagers and others who dug up clams and sold them. Those days are long gone, officials said Wednesday.
Cuomo said he himself had tried some clamming years ago in Shinnecock Bay using a rake, with poor results.
“It is exhausting,” he said. “God bless them [the clammers]. You have to be in some phenomenal shape to do that for the duration that they do it.”