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Clean Waters and Clamming in Hempstead Harbor

We are fortunate that the waters of the Long Island Sound have gotten cleaner over the past few decades. One of the highlights to the improved environmental laws that took shape was in 2011 when the shellfish beds in the northern waters of Hempstead Harbor were opened. These 2500 acres in the western end of the Sound can be found from the tip of Sands Point making a straight line east to Matinecock Point in Glen Cove. It’s southern border where harvest can be done extends to the Sands Point Preserve on the Port Washington Peninsula and east to the rocky jetty a little more than a half a mile off Morgan Memorial Park. In 2014 these waters became the second largest producer of clams in New York State taking in over 17,000 bushels having a value of $1.36 million dollars. Taking advantage of the productive beds here is a small fleet of independent clammers or bayman who start their mornings from the Brewers Glen Cove Marina. These men have a few things in common. They are all not afraid of hard work and they work outdoors in temperatures ranging from the low 30’s to the 90’s. Their paycheck is dependent on the wind and weather as well as finding a productive area. As group they are not the most talkative when it comes to their livelihood and most preferred that I did not use their name or photo for the story.

One clammer I spoke to said he has been on the water since 1973 starting on the south shore after high school. He switched over to Hempstead Harbor when it opened because the harvesting in south shore was getting harder. His plan is to be on his 24 foot Proline boat in Hempstead Harbor as long as he can make a living. He explained his day by saying that after he digs up the clams he sorts things by tossing out the garbage, undersized and cracked clams. He then sorts the clam by type and packages them accordingly. This include 400 little necks per bag, 200 top necks per bag, 120 cherrystone per bag and chowder clams are bagged by a hundred. These bags can weigh 50 to 60 pounds. The haul is then bought by wholesalers who sell direct to the bigger stores or they are sold off one more time to a distributor. Each mesh bag has a harvest tag. It tells the buyer where and what time the clams came out of the water. It also has the permit number and the type and count of the clam. The 2015 / 2016 winter was much easier on the baymen than the previous year where they would go out and cut a path in the ice with their boats. Later in the winter they had to abandon going out because the ice was just too thick.

Buying local, known as farm to table or in this case “sea to table”, is important to Chef Jeanine Dimenna of the View Grill in GlenCove. From the back of her restaurant you can see the Sound. She said of buying shellfish that is harvested where she can see water. “We have freshly-captured clams and oysters available every week from a local fisherman who sets up a table and shucks his fare in our inside and outside bar areas. I use his clams and oysters to serve fresh on ice as an appetizer. I also bake them for Clams Rockefeller or fry them to make “Po Boys. Buying local has a number of distinct advantages. First and foremost, the freshness and quality of the food is easier to ensure. Simply stated, it tastes better and although you might pay a little more, it is definitely worth it. Fostering a personal relationship with your purveyor as I do here helps support local business.” Chef Jeanine’s supplier said after over 20 years in the business world he left the “rat race to start digging and I love my quality of life”. He presently harvests clams, oysters and conch from his 24 foot Chesapeake boat. While he sells direct to The View Grill he also deals with wholesalers and even exports his conch. The clean waters are what makes the harvesting all possible. Eric Swenson, the executive director of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee (HHPC) is an avid supporter of all things dealing with the local waters. He stated “In 2012, Hempstead Harbor became the first harbor in decades in New York State to re-open a major portion of its waters to shellfish harvesting. The harbor had been closed for 45 years. This paved the way for Hempstead Harbor to become the state’s second largest producer of hard clams in 2014 with a value to the local economy of $1.3 million.

Since the standards for re-opening shellfish beds are the most stringent of all water quality standards, this achievement also shows that water quality improvement efforts are working. With continued effort on the part of local governments, homeowners, boaters, and other stakeholders, we can now focus on improving the rest of the harbor”. Bill Clemency, who was Chair of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee in 2011 said. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the harbor was plagued with sewage spills, fish kills, industrial wastes and rotting barges with nowhere to go. Today we have nesting falcons, diamondback terrapins, osprey and now we can once again dig clams and oysters!” According to state documents, the water quality necessary for certifying shellfish areas is the highest standard that there is for saline waters. With that said shellfish are not the only creatures coming back to Hempstead Harbor in the recent years. There has been infrequent visits by sea lions and more than a few visits by dolphins. In the last few seasons beluga, humpback and pilot whales were spotted.


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