Decades after Long Island baymen pulled the last big clam harvest out of the Great South Bay, Babylon Village residents have proposed a statue in the fishermen’s honor.
Plans call for a depiction in bronze and slightly larger than life — the technical term is “heroic size” — of a bearded, tong-wielding clammer atop a shallow draft vessel typical of the sort used to navigate the bay’s shallows.
Members of Babylon Beautification Society, which is sponsoring the project, are considering commissioning Jose Fernandez, the sculptor responsible for the village’s 7-foot statue of one-time resident and master planner Robert Moses that stands outside village hall.
The new statue, whose estimated $155,000 cost will be funded by grants and private donations, will be placed in the summer of 2017 in Argyle Lake Park, south of Montauk Highway.
For many, including the handful of commercial baymen left in the village, the prospect is bittersweet, commemorating a trade that has deep roots along the South Shore, but is now almost extinct there.
“There is no way of life anymore,” said Russell Bucking, 65, who grew up clamming in what was, through much of the 20th century, a million-dollar industry.
Hundreds of Babylon Village and town residents used tools like rakes and tongs to make good money during the boom years.
“Clams and oysters from the Great South Bay were shipped all over the world,” said Babylon Town historian Mary Cascone. “This was the clam capital.”
The clam population crashed in the early 1980s and never recovered, for reasons that are not fully understood. A variety of factors, from over-harvesting to pollution, are blamed.
Babylon Town issued just 18 clamming permits last year and Bucking said only four commercial baymen from Babylon Village still go out on the bay with any regularity.
“You can’t catch a dozen clams from Babylon Cut to Patchogue,” Bucking said, referring to a section of the bay.
He now makes his living crabbing and building tongs for clammers who work other waters.
Clamming helped Bucking raise a family and put his children through college. Many other families relied on the extra income as well.
“You can’t talk to a resident of Babylon Village without some past relationship with a clammer,” said Wayne Horsley, Long Island regional director for New York State parks and one of the leaders behind the statue project, who said his brother paid his way through law school by clamming.
Nancy Solomon, director of Long Island Traditions, a group that works to preserve the region’s maritime and farming cultures, called the statue plans “wonderful,” but quickly qualified her praise.
“It would be nice if they could actually do something to keep the baymen employed,” she said.
Kathy Herzy, the West Islip artist whose sketches will provide the statue’s design, used her son, Christopher Herzy, as a model, posing him on the clam boat owned by her husband, Gil Herzy. Both men worked the bay when it was lucrative.
Herzy and her husband take the boat out into the bay sometimes, where its distinctive shape draws attention, she said. “People ask us, ‘Do you have any clams for sale?’ We say no.”
In 1977, when Great South Bay clamming was near its peak and Long Island provided two out of every three clams eaten in the United States, baymen harvested 752,000 bushels. In 2015, the harvest was just 190,00 bushels.