Whether the clams were abundant or scarce, commercial clammers on the Great South Bay have always been free to take as many as they want.
Now - more than three decades after the spectacular crash of the bay's hard clam population - local governments are considering whether to block new applicants from clamming and impose daily harvest limits. The recommendations come as communities try to restore a fishery decimated by overharvesting, pollution and environmental changes in the Great South Bay.
The proposals have yet to be finalized or put to a vote by the towns they concern - Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven. But they have already set scientists, environmental advocates and some local officials against baymen who say there aren't enough clammers left on the bay to make a dent.
"Why put a moratorium?" said Don Smith, a bayman from Patchogue who blames poor water quality for low clam harvests. "There's nobody going clam digging."
Local clam harvests hit an all-time high in the mid-1970s, then declined in the next decade. The population has yet to recover.
Last year, Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven issued 158 town shellfish permits. The state issued 477 permits to town residents, many of whom likely fish outside town waters. The three towns own about 50,000 acres of underwater land in the Great South Bay.
The proposed changes come out of an intergovernmental group formed last year by Suffolk County to develop management and protection plans for hard clams in the Great South Bay. Members include environmental advocates, shellfish industry representatives and local, state and federal officials.
The idea is to provide breathing room for millions of baby clams that the towns and the Nature Conservancy have been seeding across the bay bottoms to boost the populations. Clam surveys this year indicate that recurring blooms of brown tide algae may have killed off many of the juveniles that were hailed last fall as a sign that restoration efforts were working.
"It hasn't wiped out the initial gains," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. He said the rules were needed to help restore the fishery. "Overharvesting before we're ready could impede our ability to get long-range sustainability."
The group wants the towns to set up a separate hard clam permit that would only allow commercial harvesting by those who are already active clammers. At least 450 diggers in the three towns would be eligible for the permit, according to the recommendations.
Baymen would be limited to 2,000 hard clams per day under the proposed rules. Recreational clammers could take only 50, instead of the 100-clam limit set by the state.
New York State does not set a commercial harvest limit for clams, but towns can adopt stricter laws. Seven other Long Island towns have daily limits that range from 2,000 clams to 10 bushels, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Some baymen said local governments should focus on opening up more areas to shellfishing and improving water quality in the bay through stricter regulation of sewage plants and other polluters.
"Basically all we're saying is if they give us water quality along the road, we'll have clams," said Bill Hamilton, vice president of the Brookhaven Baymen's Association and a member of the committee that came up with the proposals. Hamilton said he voted against them but was overruled. "A lot of the things that they're trying to get in place, it's like putting the cart before the horse," he said.
But those who have been working to restore the bay's decimated clams say the changes are necessary to protect the remaining population, particularly if clams start to rebound.
"If word gets out that things are looking good on the bay there could be a tremendous increase in the number of permits and diggers out there," said William Wise, director of the Living Marine Resources Institute at Stony Brook University. "It's a real concern that any success we might have would be quickly overcome by a significant increase in harvest activity."