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TOB "Putting the Oysters Back in Oyster Bay"

By Rupert Deedes


The Town of Oyster Bay has unveiled a project, called “Putting the Oysters Back in Oyster Bay,” aiming to reverse the steep decline of shellfish in the waters of Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor.


Over the years, the shellfish population in Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor has declined as a result of over harvesting, habitat loss, and degradation of water quality.


The Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge used to offer an inviting habitat for shellfish, which yielded about 90 percent of New York State’s total oyster harvest and 40 percent of its hard clam harvest each year — but shellfish populations in Oyster Bay have declined sharply.


A survey commissioned by the Town of Oyster Bay found that clam population declined by 44 percent from 2013 to 2018, and clams now are present at fewer locations included in the survey area.


The decline of shellfish in Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor has been the result of several factors - chief among them over harvesting, and the closure by the Flower Oyster Company - which is losing its harvesting lease in September - of its oyster breeding and seeding program.


The Town's new project aims to develop a science-based plan to identify areas for enhanced oyster growth and increased survival rates. The plan will develop hydrodynamic models, create habitat suitability maps, and map oyster recruitment, with the goal of establishing self-sustaining oyster populations in the bay.


The Town of Oyster Bay already has an advanced Oyster Hatchery located on the harbor, near Theodore Roosevelt Park, that raises oysters for distribution - seeding - into the harbor.  The Town plans to dramatically ramp-up the oyster hatchery to make up for the loss of the former Flower's hatchery program.


Each mature oyster or clam filters clean 25 gallons of seawater each day.


In a related development, in late April the federal Court approved an agreement committing the US Fish and Wildlife Service to re-examine whether industrial shellfish dredging in the Refuge conflicts with wildlife protection.


The North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association and the Center for Food Safety,  filed a lawsuit in 2023 to challenge the Service’s two decades-long failure to prevent harm from industrial shellfish dredging.


They note that in February 2022, the Service refused to reevaluate the effects of industrial shellfish dredging in the Refuge, as required by law, even though the reevaluation was nearly two decades overdue.


Scientific evidence gathered over the years shows that industrial shellfish dredging damages shellfish populations.


Industrial shellfish harvesting employs hydraulic dredges which use powerful water jets to loosen sediment and dislodge shellfish. Industrial dredging also relies on suction dredges, which operate like large vacuum cleaners, using a hose to suction up sand, shellfish, and other creatures from the seafloor.


Industrial dredges damage habitat by scraping the sea floor and destroying complex natural structures used by fish and other species for shelter and nursery areas. Industrial dredges also damage habitat by disturbing sand, silt, and clay on the seafloor and dispersing these materials into the water column.


In the agreement reached in late April, the Fish and Wildlife Service committed to reevaluate, within two years, the effects of industrial dredging on the Refuge.


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