Restoring The Shellfish and Healing The Great South Bay

As we were systematically denuding the bay bottom in the late ’70’s, digging out every last clam, we hardly knew then that we were also changing the entire ecology of the bay for the worse.    Here is what happened as thousands chose in tough economic times to make their living in clamming, and as the Towns of Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven issued permits to whoever was willing to pay:

Clamming chart in the great south bay.
Clamming in the Great South Bay:  The Boom and the Crash

With the collapse of the clam population due to overclamming, a lot of other things following.   In 1976, these amazing bivalves were filtering 40% of the bay water every day!    Today it is less than 1%.   The result?  The water has become increasingly polluted.    Fish populations have plummeted.   The eel grass has disappeared from much of the bay, further contributing to the bay’s pollution.   The ecosystem, in short, has largely collapsed, allowing a new ecosystem, one that includes brown and red tides, to emerge.    Until the clams were removed, they were the best hedge against the pollution caused by septic tank seepage.    With many tens of thousands of septic tanks oozing nitrogenous waste into the ground water over the decades, the Great South Bay has seen its nitrogen levels climb.   Algae blooms and the die offs they cause have been the result.

The Great South Bay can yet be saved, however, and the solution is to bring back the shellfish.    This is exactly what The Nature Conservancy is doing with its Shellfish Restoration Program.     Over they past three years, they have seeded 7,000,000 cherrystone clams into The Great South Bay, with the hope that they and their spawn would begin to repopulate the Great South Bay in enough numbers to filter the water and bring the bay back to health.    One big problem is that the eelgrass beds that were the clams’ natural habitat were decimated from over-clamming, and from the water’s increasing murkiness, caused by increased algae, which in turn has been fed by increased nitrogen levels in the bay.    The hope is that from the areas where they can establish new clam beds the surrounding waters will become cleaner and allow the beds to spread.   The Nature Conservancy has 21 square miles of The Great South Bay under its’ stewardship — more than a third of it.   Should they be successful in repopulating the bay beds in what used to be The Bluepoint Oyster Company’s, they could go a long way toward resuscitating the bay and restoring it to us.

Each year they seed the bay with millions more clams.   You can help by

  • Volunteering to load the boat with clams and go out with them to seed the clams into the bay.
  • Buying a Save The Great South Bay teeshirt or car sticker here.   Profits go to buying more clams for the effort.
  • Donating here.