Oystering in The GSB — It’s Colorful Complicated Past And Possible Sustainable Future

Marshall, I read your response to Bill Fetzer and found it to be somewhat inaccurate regarding the  Blue Point Company property which you should know was not a lease but came from a strange and illegal grant of land known as the Smith Patent. I say illegal because a grant of underwater land from a Colonial Governor representing the King of England for property that had already been granted by a previous colonial governor to the trustees and freeholders of the town of Brookhaven was beyond the power of the King and his governors to legal grant to Colonel Smith a private individual. The settlement between the Brookhaven Trustees and the Smith heirs was an equal moiety agreement whereby a bushel tax on wild oysters would be collected by town officials and split with the Smith heirs. Converting that into an absolute right to all shellfish on 20-square-miles of underwater land in the Great South Bay (GSB) took monumental political corruption on the part of; town, state, and court officials. Kings and Queens of England have been restricted in their power to grant exclusive rights of fishery where the tide ebbs and flows into private ownership since the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215. This is particularly true where a common right of fishery has been established, certainly the Brookhaven residents had from the earliest colonial times enjoy the right of harvesting the shellfish from of the bay.        

The use of GSB underwater land for oyster culture did not become prevalent until the 1860’s this is tortured history of Long Island Towns granting and leasing public trust land out from under the freeholders of the towns. The methods of cultivation were primitive depending on planting clean shell and hoping to catch oyster spat and failing this transplanting seed oysters from other locations. Competition for oyster seed causes seed to been stripped from rivers in distance states and barge loaded to the GSB for grow-out. Certainly, industrialization and pollution in those coastal rivers played an important role in the decline of the oyster culture boom and bust but the model itself was dependent on extraction of natural oyster seed from rivers. Bluepoint Company turned to hydraulic shellfish dredging in the late 1950s focusing exclusively on natural hard clams until the final collapse in the 1990s.

Hydraulic conveyor dredging jets water 18-inches into the bottom and conveyor vessels can cover up to 4-acres a day that means a single dredge boat fluidizes and mobilizes 9,680 cubic yards of sediment a day. The image of a Maryland conveyor dredge of the type Bluepoint Company used in the GSB shows the force of the water jets that are applied to the bottom.

When you make statements about damage cause by hand rakes you need to know what you are talking about rakes comb clams out of the bottom with the minimum necessary disturbance. I would not argue that sanctuaries and rotational management are not necessary but hand harvest restrictions provide a basis for sustainable management of public shellfishing grounds.  Hydraulic dredges homogenize naturally stratified sediment layers interrupting biological and chemical processes releasing soluble nutrients, cause excessive turbidity, and increased sedimentation. Recovery periods are measured in decades.

Your view that shellfish aquaculture can a panacea is an illusion the benefits to the health of the bay from natural shellfish beds are not duplicated in the artificial cultivation process. Cradle to grave cultivated shellfish release more nitrogen that they remove the circumstances and the density they are held in is determines how much of a negative effect they have. The environment they are cultivated in is not evolved to process waste the way natural shellfish beds with a host of deposit feeding organisms and specialized anaerobic bacteria are. Natural subtidal shellfish beds are premium essential fish habitat primarily because of all the small invertebrates they support. Shellfish cultivation has its place in scale but it is the restoration of natural shellfish habitat that has the greatest potential to provide long term benefit to coastal ecosystems.

You talk about shellfish aquaculture on a grand scale that is privatization of public trust land on a grand scale, Long Island has been there and done that with its underwater land – what a disaster that was for shellfisheries in Huntington, GSB and Oyster Bay. Regulators are looking the other way while hydraulic dredge boats kick up 40,000 cubic yards of sediment in Oyster Bay every day. 

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