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Baymen, shellfish firm battle in Oyster Bay

Fishermen Bill Fetzer, left, and Bill Painter, both

Fishermen Bill Fetzer, left, and Bill Painter, both of Bayville, sort clams caught in Oyster Bay. (April 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

A line has been drawn in Oyster Bay Harbor.

It's an underwater border, indicating where independent baymen can drop their clam rakes and where a local shellfishing firm can lower its mechanical dredges.

The line's positioning -- and the alleged indiscriminate repositioning of its markers -- are part of a bitter legal battle pitting the North Oyster Bay Baymen's Association against the Frank M. Flower & Sons company and Oyster Bay Town, which leases land to Flower.

There's more at stake than shellfish, the baymen say.

"It's about the bay in general, what's right and what's wrong," bayman William Fetzer, 48, of Bayville, said last week. "And there's a lot wrong."

The baymen's association and town representatives, including Supervisor John Venditto, are scheduled to meet Tuesday, along with their lawyers.

It would be the first such meeting since the group filed a complaint last summer in State Supreme Court, alleging illegal and unchecked shellfishing by Flower, which the baymen said is enabled by the town. Flower will not be at the meeting.

About 25 baymen wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the association's name attended a town council meeting last week and engaged in a civil but tense exchange with Venditto, who called in a deputy town attorney to monitor.

"We were making a statement," association president James Schultz, 38, of Bayville, said afterward.

"I know there's issues to be resolved, but . . . I'm friends personally with a lot of you," Venditto told them.

An amended complaint filed in October alleges Flower regularly adjusts the lines to usurp clamming grounds, that the company illegally harvests naturally growing shellfish, that its suction dredges upset the bay's environmental balance and that the town turns a blind eye to it all.

"It's not a fair playing ground," Schultz said.

His group, which has about 50 members, seeks $750 million in damages and the nullification of Flower's leases. Flower and the town have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. A town spokeswoman said the town does not comment on pending litigation.

Flower says it leases about 1,800 acres from the town; the baymen say they farm about 3,000 acres, much of which is not as pristine as Flower's share.

The conflict dates back to 1991, when the baymen accused the town of using an erroneous map to establish Flower's lease. That complaint was settled in part after Flower conceded land to the baymen.

Flower's attorney, Garden City-based Gary Ettelman, in a statement called the baymen's newest litigation "totally frivolous" and accused them of misrepresenting facts. Flower co-owner Dave Relyea, 65, of Bayville, said the matter was settled two decades ago and that Flower's boundaries are accurately drawn "with survey-grade equipment." He said Flower plants seedlings so that the bay bottom is "cultivating continuously."

The baymen said they also plant seedlings. Their attorney, Huntington-based Darrin Berger, said they harvest clams year-round via manual labor, have daily limits on their take and depend on every last bushel for their livelihoods.

Flower, he said, "has no limit. They can take as much as they want."

 

Their harvest

The baymen and Flower together bring in 90 percent of the state's oyster harvest and 33 percent of its clam harvest, nonprofit Friends of the Bay says.

Baymen say each is limited to three bushels a day, if they can pull that many. One Flower dredge sweep can produce 8 to 10 bushels with no daily limit, they say.

Flower says it plants 50 million clam seedlings annually on its grounds, and more than 1 million on public grounds. Baymen say they fund 4 million seedlings yearly.

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