A seagull keeps a clammer company in the waters off...

A seagull keeps a clammer company in the waters off the Sayville Marina in the Great South Bay. (2011) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Lawmakers in the three towns on the Great South Bay are considering new restrictions on clamming in local waters, drawing on the recommendations of a recent Suffolk County report that found the bay's hard clam population is depleted and barely sustainable.

While overharvesting during the 1970s is widely blamed for the depletion, local baymen say the problem now is the overall health of the bay -- which the proposed rules, whose focus is catch limits and numbers of permits -- do not address.

"We're always to blame," said bayman Bill Hamilton, 59, of Brookhaven. "You don't have the water quality, you're wasting your time [with new rules]."

Trish Bergin Weichbrodt, a town board member in Islip -- which is considering new rules along with Babylon and Brookhaven -- said officials are trying to prevent a new round of overharvesting: "If the hard clam population starts coming back, we don't want everybody out there in boats ripping clams out of the bay, because that's what got us in this predicament in first place."

In towns where baymen once supplied half the hard-shell clams eaten in the nation and brought millions of dollars to local economies, news of the proposed rules -- intended to replace temporary measures adopted in 2010 -- might once have sparked anxiety.

But a public hearing last week on Babylon's proposed regulations drew just a handful of aging baymen, a seafood wholesaler and two officials from the Nature Conservancy.

Some of the baymen were suspicious of the officials "putting their nose into bay business," as Tom Kuhner, 68, of Babylon, put it before the hearing. "Mother Nature will take care of it."

But they were silent when proceedings began, leaving Nature Conservancy marine scientist Carl LoBue to praise the bill for preserving old bay traditions "while giving the three towns the tools they need to regulate" and manage their resources.

In an interview later, LoBue said that lack of oversight had contributed to overharvesting. "The fishermen's job is to catch fish," he said. "It's the responsibility of managers to make sure it's managed responsibly, and it wasn't."

The 2011 report, which included input from environmental groups, officials and baymen, proposed using mathematical modeling and clam population surveys to establish maximum sustainable harvest levels, which could be adjusted yearly. The report also recommended capping the number of permits issued.

Those proposals drew criticism from Nancy Solomon, director of Long Island Traditions, a group that works to preserve the region's maritime and farming cultures. "The towns may say we're getting too close to some arbitrarily determined maximum capacity determined by people don't have the baymen's interest at heart," she said.

Proposed regulations in Babylon, based on the report's recommendations, would limit daily harvest to 2,000 clams -- worth about $250 dockside. No more than 27 commercial permits a year would be issued to those already clamming or those with a family connection to the business.

The bill allows appeals of permit denials and for yearly adjustment of the number of permits based on clam population. It would also require commercial permit holders to submit monthly logs of their clamming to the town. Islip's bill is similar but has no reporting requirement.

All three town boards are likely to vote on regulations in coming weeks, officials say.

When the Great South Bay clam industry was at its height, in 1976, baymen pulled 700,000 bushels of clams out of the water here, selling dockside for $16.9 million. The towns of Babylon, Brookhaven and Islip collectively issued 6,500 clamming permits that year.

Four years later, the harvest had dropped by half; over the last decade, baymen have pulled fewer than 10,000 bushels of clams from the bay annually. And the dockside value of a clam is about what it was in the 1970s, said Bill Zeller, a local wholesaler, making it difficult to earn a profit.

In Babylon last week, town board member Lindsay Henry said there was reason for optimism: "If we manage this resource, and manage it well, it goes to seafood restaurants, gas stations, delicatessens . . . People come to the South Shore to enjoy this resource and they spend their money here."

But bayman Ralph Frederico, 79 and clamming for 50 years, sees no bright future for his industry. "I got 16 grandchildren -- they ain't going to do this," he said. The days of pulling riches from the water are over, he said. "What I seen in my days, you'll never see again."

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