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Study to assess whether shellfish dredging affects Oyster Bay Harbor

Joseph Vinarski, sales manager of shellfishing company Frank M. Flower & Sons Inc., discusses the methods the company uses to dredge for shellfish in Oyster Bay Harbor. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Researchers from Stony Brook University plan to study how mechanical shellfish harvesting kicks up sediment in Oyster Bay Harbor over the coming year.

How the sediment affects the environment under the waves is a hotly contested issue that could impact negotiations for a new lease on the town’s shellfish beds. Baymen, independent shell fishermen, allege that shellfishing company Frank M. Flower & Sons Inc.’s methods are damaging the environment. The company’s lawyer said he expects the study to show their methods are safe.

“The purpose of the study is to get an independent evaluation of what’s going on,” said State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport), who said he got the $75,000 for the study in this year’s state budget. “There needed to be a real comprehensive study done.”

Roger Flood, a Stony Brook research professor of oceanography who is part of the team, said a boat will traverse most of the shellfishing beds using sonar and other technologies to create detailed images of the bottom of the harbor. They will also take water samples to see how much sediment is suspended at different depths during harvesting.

Flower's harvesting method uses high-pressure water shot on the bottom of the harbor to loosen up sediment, followed by a metal basket that scoops up the shellfish.

“The question is how much material is getting resuspended off the bed,” Flood said, noting that a certain amount of sediment moves naturally in the water from tides or weather but that too much at one time can have a negative impact on wildlife.

The team could make recommendations when the study is complete, Flood added.

“We’ll have to see if our data supports some kind of best practices,” he said.

James Cammarata, Oyster Bay-based attorney for Frank M. Flower, said that other studies have shown that the disturbance from harvesting only lasts about 30 minutes and that he expects this study to show similar results.

“We’ve always been supportive of any truly independent study of the impacts of harvesting of shellfish, especially how shellfish harvesting may impact sedimentation,” Cammarata said.

Bill Painter, president of the North Oyster Bay Baymens Association, which represents independent shell fishermen, said he believes the study will show Frank M. Flower’s methods are causing environmental damage.

“I think the study will get to the bottom of the mass destruction of what hydraulic dredging does,” Painter said.

Heather Johnson, executive director of Friends of the Bay, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental conservation of the harbor, said her organization has stayed neutral in the dispute due to lack of scientific data.

“We’re going to base our decisions on fact and on science, and if something is presented that is concrete then we would go one way or the other, or continue to be neutral because it was inconclusive,” Johnson said.

Flower harvests shellfish under a 30-year lease with Oyster Bay that expires at the end of 2024. Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said the study will provide useful information for future lease negotiations.

“This study we hope will shed much more scientific light on the long-term effects of hydraulic dredging,” Saladino said. “We want to embrace the best practices going forward.”

OYSTER BAY HARVEST STUDY SCOPE

  • Create detailed images of the bottom of the harbor
  • Measure density of sediment suspended in the water
  • Track sediment plume movements

Source: Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences

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