Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Baby Boom of Clams in Great South Bay by Jennifer Smith --

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Efforts to restore the Great South Bay's decimated clam population seem to be paying off, with surveys showing a 4,000 percent rise since 2006 in the amount of baby clams nestled on the bottom of a major section of the bay.

Divers estimated more than 270 million juvenile clams this summer in the central Great South Bay, where the Nature Conservancy on Long Island has been working to revive hard clams at a 13,400-acre preserve off West Sayville. The preserve makes up about 20 percent of the 64,000-acre bay.

Environmental advocates and Long Island officials called the results a promising first step but cautioned that much work lay ahead to heal the bay, which has been plagued by algal blooms and other water quality problems for decades.

This summer Suffolk County saw its worst brown tide bloom on record, a concern because the algae produces a chemical that can make it difficult for bivalves to feed.

But we are on the right track," Carl LoBue, a senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, said Thursday at a news conference in West Sayville. LoBue said the group would continue over the next few years to bolster the adult clam population and "make sure that the little baby clams . . . live long enough to survive and reproduce on their own" in about two years.

With the help of $1 million from Suffolk County, the Nature Conservancy has spent $3 million to sow millions of adult clams at its preserve over the past four years. The goal: kick-start a clam baby boom by increasing the overall density of clams across the bay bottoms.

Researchers were concerned that this summer's prolonged brown tide bloom would stunt or kill juvenile clams produced by those efforts. To their relief, the 2008 surveys recorded a jump from less than one juvenile clam per square meter in 2006 to more than three juveniles per square meter.

Citing the blooms and a more than 99 percent decline in local clam harvests since the 1970s because of overharvesting and pollution, the state asked the federal Commerce department in September to declare a commercial fishery failure for the Great South Bay. That designation could give more access to federal money for research and restoration. The department has yet to issue a decision.

Yesterday Brookhaven Supervisor Brian X. Foley and other officials urged the Commerce Department to approve the request. "The bay is still in great peril," Foley said.

In recent weeks, local and state officials have been meeting on a topic not much discussed since the clam population crashed in the mid-1980s: enforcement of shellfish regulations, to prevent the juveniles from being harvested before they get a chance to spawn.

"This is great news, but let's hope they're still out there three years from now," said Bill Hamilton, vice president of the Brookhaven Baymens Association. "We're going to need law enforcement to stay on top of that. . . . And let's hope all the environmental conditions improve so they have a chance."