The owners of a commercial fishing vessel have been fined $100,000 for harvesting clams in uncertified waters and then trying to sell the potentially tainted shellfish, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said Thursday.
Bay Head Inc. of Bellport, owners of a 70-foot ocean surf clam harvesting boat, agreed to the penalty after an investigation by the state agency. The probe also prevented the sale of 28 cages of shellfish -- possibly tainted -- from reaching consumers, according to a news release from the agency.
In February, acting on a tip, conservation officers saw the vessel harvesting clams in uncertified waters near the outflow pipe of Suffolk County's Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant, south of the Bergen Point Golf Course in West Babylon.
An area three miles offshore and a half-mile east and west of the pipe has been closed to shellfish harvesting since the late 1970s, the state agency said. Waters are designated as uncertified because of their location near any accidental untreated discharges; these areas also are off-limits because of possible damage to pipes from dredges that are used to harvest surf clams.
"In addition to protecting natural resources, Environmental Conservation Officers play a valuable role in safeguarding the public's health," DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in praising investigators who worked on the case. "The harvesting of shellfish from uncertified waters has the potential to have dire human health consequences by transmitting diseases to humans who consume them."
A spokeswoman for the agency said it received about 2,000 tips last year about illegal fishing or other violations of conservation laws.
In this case, investigators acting on a complaint saw the vessel, the Amanda Tara, in the area on Feb. 25, according to the department news release. The Suffolk County Police Aviation Unit helped the DEC take aerial photographs, with the boat's activity and exact location in the closed, uncertified waters, the release said. Also, other agency enforcement officers continued observation from the shore.
The vessel was seen harvesting clams in the closed area after sunset, another violation of environmental conservation law, the release said.
The next day, the agency said 26 cages prepared to be shipped to a Delaware processing facility were seized as they were unloaded in Oceanside, and two more cages that already were in transit to the facility were confiscated. All potentially tainted clams -- 896 bushels, worth about $11,000 -- were destroyed, the agency said.
J. Lee Snead, the Bellport attorney who represented the company in the settlement, said the vessel had a new captain who was not familiar with the waters. Snead said the captain was using a vessel monitoring system -- software similar to global positioning systems for cars and trucks -- that did not show the restricted area.
Snead said the software was supplied by the state agency, but, he acknowledged, "we have a responsibility to know those regulations, too."
Snead said some of the harvested clams were returned to the water when the vessel was notified of its error and that the company helped to destroy the potentially tainted clams.
"It was not an issue of intent," he said. "It was a mistake, and once we recognized there was a violation we agreed to settle."