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Algae, predators stunt clam growth in Great South Bay

While clams remain scarce in the Great South Bay, restoration efforts show the troubled water body can still produce new baby clams.

But recurring algae blooms and hungry marine predators make it harder for clams to reach adulthood there than in other local bays, according to a report released last week by the Nature Conservancy.

The review covers five years of clam restoration work by the group, local scientists and local, state and federal agencies. Hard clam numbers in the Great South Bay plummeted in the 1980s, largely due to overharvesting, and have yet to recover.

The report recommended identifying and protecting key spawning areas where clam production is the highest - a proposal not likely to find favor with local baymen.

"It's going to affect our harvesting," said Bill Hamilton of the Brookhaven Baymen's Association. "There are really not too many clams except in those areas."

Hamilton and others have also opposed new limits on commercial clamming in the Great South Bay that the Nature Conservancy supported. Babylon and Islip towns have adopted those rules, and Brookhaven has scheduled a hearing on the matter for April 20.

But others say such tactics are needed to bring back the clams. "We've really got to protect those critical areas," said Chris Gobler, an associate professor at Stony Brook University.

The Nature Conservancy report said more work is needed to reduce nitrogen dumped in the bay by rain or leached by nearby septic systems. Scientists like Gobler think those nutrients may encourage blooms of brown tide algae, which starves clams by interfering with their ability to filter-feed.

"It's a more challenging environment for clams than Long Island Sound or the Peconic," said Carl Lobue, a senior marine scientist with the group, which has a preserve off West Sayville.

Lobue said reduced government spending due to the economic downturn could derail some successful initiatives, such as restocking the bay with adult clams to boost reproductive rates. To date some 3.7 million adult clams have been deposited in the bay - work Lobue said has led to more new juveniles than had been seen there in the past two decades.

But about 90 percent of the young clams from 2007 died by 2009. The group had expected to lose 80 percent to natural mortality, but researchers think the death rate was exacerbated by the worst brown tide on record in the Great South Bay in 2008. Some clams starved while others failed to grow, increasing their vulnerability to predators.

The report comes as local officials await word on a requested federal disaster declaration for the hard clam fishery that could open up additional money for research and restoration. A National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman said last week that a decision had not yet been made on the request.

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