It is difficult to overstate the win for our region that has occurred in Shinnecock Bay.
That’s where Stony Brook University marine scientists conducted a decadelong restoration effort to bring back a demolished population of hard clams, a historic bivalve on Long Island.
They succeeded. The seeding and protection of the clams, begun in 2012, ultimately led to an 18-fold increase in the abundance of hard clams and a 16-fold increase in harvests. That is an impressive accomplishment given how high the clam populations once were on Long Island — which hosted the “most prolific” hard clam fishery in the country in the 1970s — and how low the population then dropped, with harvests collapsing more than 99% by the time the project began, according to a new paper about the restoration in Frontiers in Marine Science.
But what might make even non-bivalve researchers and eaters pay attention is the wealth of other changes that the reinvigorated clams brought with them.
The clams filter water, and their high concentration led to speedier rates of water filtration, with significant decreases of chlorophyll and brown tide algae. Their comeback helped build up sea grass — no small feat, given that 90% of the state’s sea grass meadows have disappeared since the 20th century.
And the increases in the Shinnecock clam population means more clams for bay workers to harvest and sell. The benefit to the regional economy has run into millions of dollars since 2015, according to the paper's lead author, Christopher J. Gobler of Stony Brook's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
This economic benefit should not be ignored, and neither should the contribution of the baymen who allowed themselves to be kept out of typical fishing grounds. The no-harvest zones may not have been easy to stomach for some at first, but their patience and persistence paid off.
There are many lessons here. First is that relatively simple or low-tech solutions can help to clean our environment and bolster our ecosystems. But they need to be carefully designed, painstakingly nurtured, and stubbornly protected. Gobler, for example, considers this “kind of a career project for me.” He was doing related research in the region long before this exact initiative began.
There’s more work to be done in Shinnecock Bay and beyond. Gobler has already helped start similar projects in other bays across Long Island, carefully choosing locations and hoping to have similar effects on the water and the clams themselves.
The Frontiers in Marine Science paper notes that given the “outsized impact on shallow estuaries” wrought by bivalves, sanctuaries like those in Shinnecock Bay “may be a promising approach” for bringing about the same benefits elsewhere.
Let the clams work.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.