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Shell Fishing – A Story of Bounty to Bust

One thought runs common in the words of most clammers who worked the bays of Long Island’s south shore in its heyday. “I wish I could have lived and supported my family off the bay”. But unfortunately, as the late seventies dawned, most realized that dreams of making a living surrounded by nature was dissolving. By the early eighties many were leaving the trade they loved to become firemen, policemen, carpenters, lawyers, teachers and electricians. A small group went into offshore commercial fishing and a few bought charter boats.

Shell fishing provided sustenance to the Native Americans, colonists and New Yorkers from the lowly “Five Points” to the rich in their Fifth Avenue mansions. When oysters were king, Diamond Jim Brady and Boss Tweed were said to have filled their bellies with hundreds at a time. Then in 1850’s the oyster fishery in New York Harbor, Raritan Bay, and the beds adjacent to Staten Island collapsed due to over harvesting and growing pollution. Jamaica Bay was legally closed to shell fishing due to pollution in 1912.

Natural Oysters were replaced by oyster farms such as the Fowler Bros., operating in Oyster Bay and the Blue Point Co., Ocker Bros, Van Wyan Oyster Company and the Westerbeke Bros., amongst others on the Great South Bay of Long Island. In 1937 over 1 million bushels of oysters were harvested along with 300,000 bushels of hard and soft clams including Chowders, Cherry Stones, Little Necks, and Steamers. Scallops were also marketed but their numbers were being diminished by a sea weed infection that laid large portions of the bay devoid of the vegetation scallop spat needed to survive. Unfortunately, Long Island was graced by the hurricane of Sept, 1938 which destroyed most South Bay oyster operations leaving Fowler as the last major operation which was based on the North Shore.

To compensate the ever resourceful bay men began switching primarily to clamming to fill the growing demand in the absence of oysters. They used tongs, rakes, dredges from their boats and some even treading with their feet. And so began the “great bivalve hunt”. A healthy harvest of clams could be culled from almost every cove and broad expense of bay surrounding Long Island, New England and areas of New Jersey. But it was Long Island, especially the Great South Bay, which accounted for most of the bounty.

World War II was a quiet time for the bays and coves. Old timers were still out shell fishing but demand was down and the younger generation was fighting the Battle of the Bulge in France or landing on the beaches of Iwo Jima. While the oysters and scallops never recovered enough to market them commercially, clams took up the slack. As the victorious G.I.’s returned, rural Long Island began to fill with homes, roads, shopping centers, and restaurants. Demand for clams increased and although many G.I. sons of baymen did not pursue their father’s trade, enough stayed with it to fuel the biggest boom in the industry since the years of 1 million bushel harvests.

By 1969 clammers in the Great South Bay were harvesting half of all the clams consumed in the United States. Add to that clams taken from Peconic Bay, Huntington, North Port, Oyster Bay, plus a myriad of coves and smaller bays that surround Long Island made the bounty seem infinite. But nothing is infinite. The late sixties saw the first areas of bay bottom closed because of polluted water run off and leeching cesspools from an overdeveloping island.

The South West Sewer district project allegedly increased salinity in the bay. Management by the towns was ineffective and seeding programs were hampered by loss of habitat and poaching. The first red tides appeared due in part to inadequate water refreshment from the ocean. Yet heavy harvesting increased as did the number of permits given out by towns within their jurisdiction. From 1970 to 1977 commercial permits almost doubled to almost 9,500.

Ironically the beginning of the decline in harvest correlates directly with the increase in the number of permits issued. It was easy income for the town. Little did anyone sense the looming disaster would shortly come to pass.

As the quantity of harvested clams began to decline, the dollar value increased due to supply and demand factors and the high inflation in the 1970’s so the red flag was not raised. In those years, near the Causeway Bridge, you could cross the Great South Bay jumping from clam boat to clam boat. In addition to full time career clammers came a new breed of part timers. They used the money for college tuition, buy houses and cars, start other businesses. The 1,500 professional, all day, everyday clammer could see what was happening. How could this continue? It Couldn’t.

By 1982 the bottom had fallen out of the burlap sack. The heyday was gone. Clamming boats were being sold, abandoned or used for other purposes. There still were some clams here and there but basically the bay bottom had been scraped clean. In the early 90’s it was a rare site to see a clammer on the bay. The few remaining bay men have sustained themselves by doing a little of this and a little of that. Crabbing is still good as was the bait business but that has been restricted by DEC regulations which have become so onerous against the bayman while commercial draggers strip the outside ocean with impunity. Shell fishing is still in the blood of a few remaining baymen. During the summer they set traps for crab and eels. Some clam the remaining sweet spots they know. A few hardy souls shift east in late fall and winter where illusive scallops sometimes can be harvested when conditions are conducive.

In the Village of Babylon is planned a statue of a bayman with his clamming tongs in hand standing tall as if his feet are at the edge of his boat. This is not only a memorial to a bygone era but also a commitment to the future. Towns and villages like Babylon are dedicating themselves to the restoration of our bays. New clamming and oystering ventures are already in operation. The public bay bottom is being monitored and seeded with spat in some areas. It is hoped that teamwork between private, public and government will work towards the regeneration of the bays and shell fishing. How they are to proceeding is a future story.

Many thanks to Mary Cascone – Babylon Town


In memory of Forrest Clock-A true man of the bay.

Article and illustrations

c.2017 Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved

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