Balancing her body across a wooden plank, Lauren Puccia reaches into the floating tray and grabs a handful of gravel. She deposits her catch on another plank and begins sifting through it as if searching through change for a rare coin.
Triumphantly, she thrusts her hand toward Brian Zitani, Babylon Town's waterways management supervisor, showing him a clam no larger than the tip of a pinkie finger.
"Look, they're double in size!" she exclaims. "They're growing like monsters!" replies an equally excited Zitani.
Puccia, the town's bay management specialist, was checking on clam seeds planted in the spring, part of a nearly 40-year-old town program designed to help restock the Great South Bay.
Once a thriving industry that supplied the nation with half of its hard clams, by the 1980s clamming in the Great South Bay was devastated by overharvesting, pollution and shoreline development, experts said. A recent Suffolk County report found the bay's clam population is "poor in terms of its potential for sustained harvest, capacity to restore itself, and ecological benefits to the Bay."
South Shore officials aren't giving up.
Since the late 1970s, Babylon and other towns have been trying to restore the stock. Each year, the town spends about $17,000 on a million seeds of the fast-growing subspecies notata clam, distinctive for its red stripes. Using 44 4-by-8 foot trays in a cove in Cedar Beach Marina, town workers mix the seeds with gravel and cover them with plywood, checking on the clams weekly to make sure predators such as crabs do not devour them.
When they reach the size of a quarter, the mollusks are transplanted to the bay. A red clam reaches full maturity in about four years, Zitani said.
Each year, the town surveys an area with transplanted clams to see if the program is working. Last year's survey revealed mature clams and clam spawn, Zitani said.
Anecdotally, Zitani and others hear of mature red clams being harvested from the bay. Bill Zeller, owner of a West Babylon seafood wholesaler, said clammers occasionally bring in red clams. "The heart behind the town's effort is admirable," he said. "Does it work? We're not sure."
Zeller said red clams have a more delicate shell than slower-growing white clams, making them less desirable on the market. "If this bay spawned all reds, I would not be as delighted as much as if it spawned all whites," he said.
Threats to the clams remain, most notably brown tide algae blooms that intermittently pop up and kill shellfish. "When we hear about brown tide blooming out east, it's like a Midwestern farmer hearing about locusts," Zitani said.
Carl LoBue, senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, said that while towns are helping, more needs to be done to sustain bay clams. "In the long term, we're going to need to fix the water quality problem," he said.
In the meantime, each speck of a clam is important, Zitani said. "We always say, 'Don't lose that one,' " he said. "That one clam can bring the bay back."