When she was growing up, North Hempstead Councilwoman Mariann Dalimonte loved throwing off her shoes and wading in Manhasset Bay, where she'd use her bare feet to feel for clams buried on the shallow bay bottom.
Whatever she could carry home would become part of a meal of clam chowder or baked clams, she said. Dalimonte wants it to be that way for future generations.
"Manhasset Bay was my summer camp," Dalimonte told Newsday on Friday, as she and town officials prepared to plant 1 million baby oysters in the bay, the start of what they hope is the rebirth of recreational and commercial shellfishing there.
"This is my dream — to getting Manhasset Bay back to what it should be."
Under bright blue skies Friday afternoon, Dalimonte and North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena popped the corks for a sparkling-cider toast as the first bushels of baby oyster seeds were dropped into the water from a town bay constables vessel. The oysters — known as spat once they go underwater and attach themselves to rocks and broken shells — were spread among three areas of the bay, with the hope they will mature and begin reproducing on their own in a year or two.
Shellfishing had thrived on Long Island for more than a century before pollution and overfishing virtually destroyed the industry during the 1980s.
Towns such as Brookhaven, Hempstead, Islip and North Hempstead in recent years have spearheaded pilot programs to seed bays and harbors with baby shellfish just a few millimeters in size.
Besides boosting marine habitat and the shellfishing industry, bivalves help clean the water by feeding on algae, officials said. At a news conference at the town dock in Port Washington, officials displayed a pair of fish tanks — one with oysters and one without. The one with oysters was noticeably cleaner.
"Manhasset Bay is a local treasure," Dalimonte told reporters at the news conference. "Studies have shown that oysters have an impressive role to play in filtering pollutants from our waters."
Even if only 50% of the seeds survive, the oysters will filter about 25 million gallons of water a day, DeSena said.
North Hempstead's $19,400 program bought oyster seeds from a Cornell Cooperative Extension hatchery in Southold. Cornell will monitor the seeds to study their growth and see how many survive.
"It's just testing conditions at this specific site," Cornell marine program director Chris Pickerell said, adding he couldn't estimate how many oysters would survive. "They're not going to be 100% survival, but you usually get good survival [rates]."
Similar programs have seen success in Great South Bay, Stony Brook Harbor and other Long Island waterways, he said.
Assemb. Gina L. Sillitti (D-Port Washington) said at the news conference the oyster program, combined with efforts to built a Manhasset sewer system, would help the bay thrive in the future.
"It's all these things that are going to clean up our bay and keep it pristine for generations to come," she said.