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Town, baymen at odds over shellfish restoration plan in Great South Bay

Bayman John Buczak unties his boat docked on

Bayman John Buczak unties his boat docked on Captree Island on Tuesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

An Islip Town proposal covering shellfish harvesting in a 1,569-acre section of the Great South Bay has prompted a debate between officials who say it would preserve a vital marine resource and baymen who fear it could destroy their industry.

Islip officials say the plan, in which licenses would be awarded to commercial aquaculture firms to grow shellfish in 134 10-acre underwater parcels, is designed to help clams, oysters and other mollusks rebound from more than a century of overfishing and environmental hazards such as brown tide.

But some baymen who have dredged the waters for decades say the change would limit their ability to fish there — the latest threat to a way of life already on the verge of becoming obsolete.

"It would put us out of business for that particular zone," said John Buczak, 71, of Bay Shore, who has been fishing the waters for more than 50 years. "If that area is off limits for us to dredge, it’ll hurt us."

Town officials say the goal is to save the bay's dwindling population of shellfish for future generations of baymen. Aquaculture license holders would be expected to cultivate oysters and clams — which also would help clean the water because bivalves naturally filter impurities.

"The loss of shellfish in the Great South Bay … has negatively impacted all wildlife in the bay," Islip Environmental Control Commissioner Martin Bellew said in an email. "A healthy shellfish population can be a factor in maintaining healthy finfish populations as well."

The bay "is large enough for fishermen and shellfish growers to work," Bellew added.

The proposal, which dates to 2018, is making its way through the town and state approval process. It's not clear when town officials will make a decision.

Islip's plan could work, said Christopher Gobler, a Stony Brook University professor who studies marine sciences. But it's hard to tell how long it might take, he said.

"There’s not a magic number because every site is different," he said.

Some baymen said the plan, if implemented, would take away one of the few areas of Long Island waters where they can fish for bivalves and crustaceans such as crabs.

West Islip bayman Scott Commins, 58, said the program would hurt his business, adding he doubted the plan would work because the bay's water quality was "horrific" and may stymie efforts to grow anything.

"Why are they leasing up the bottom when it’s not going to be successful?" Commins said. "We spent the last 100 years getting back the land for the commercial fisherman and for the general public. … Now they want to lease it again."

If Islip adopts the plan, Buczak said, he may have to take his boat about 20 miles east to Moriches Bay to catch crabs. That would be one more blow to an industry that has been decimated since about 1980, he said.

"It’s taken its toll. The good old days … they’re gone but not forgotten," Buczak said. "At least I can say I’ve been there to see the good days. … Nowadays, it just doesn’t happen anymore."

Highlights of aquaculture preservation proposal

Location: Great South Bay, east of Captree Island and south of Heckscher State Park

Size: 1,569 acres

The proposal: Leases for 134 10-acre underwater parcels, each separated by 60-foot channels for navigation

Cost: Licenses would cost $750 acre per year

Purpose: Nurture growth of clams and oysters after decades of decline

Status: Awaiting approval from Town of Islip

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