Southold to Rally Shellfishers to Convince State to Open Beds

Summer clammers in Downs Creek, Cutchogue
Summer clammers in Downs Creek, Cutchogue

The East End of Long Island has some of the most extensive and productive creek networks in the entire state, but cutbacks at the Department of Environmental Conservation have long plagued the department’s oversight of shellfishing in those creeks.

There’s just one understaffed lab state-wide authorized to certify waters safe for shellfishing according to FDA standards, and when that lab can’t test waters frequently enough, the DEC’s default position is to limit the shellfishing allowed in those waters.

Southold Town has been at the forefront of an effort to train citizens as volunteer water samplers, in the hopes of proving to the DEC that the waters here are safe for shellfishing.

Over the past several years, Southold has helped 12 citizen scientists become certified in sampling the town’s waterways, but last year, just two rounds of samples were actually tested by the lab, Southold Town Trustee John Bredemeyer told the Southold Town Board at a work session Tuesday morning.

The DEC has long maintained that Southold’s waterways are being polluted by road and municipal runoff, but Town Engineer Michael Collins, who was hired three years ago to help the town comply with federal Municipal Seperate Storm Sewer System mandates, told the Town Board Tuesday that Southold has been doing a good job controlling runoff, and should look elsewhere to determine what’s causing water pollution.

“The perception is that all shellfish closures that occur in the state are due to pollution from stormwater runoff,” Mr. Collins told the board. “But the DEC program has been underfunded for years. They lack the resources to fully test the waters.”

“Within Southold, there are hundreds of acres of shellfishing lands untested or undertested for decades, including some of the most productive waters,” he added.

The DEC often closes shellfishing beds after heavy rainfall until the water can be tested, under the assumption that runoff will increase the bacteria in the bays. But Mr. Collins said those assumptions don’t match the science in Southold.

“In certain cases, we can find absolutely no link between increased rainfall and bacteria,” he said. “In certain cases it’s the opposite. Rain flushes it out. Nobody is taking a hard look, on a water body by water body basis. It could be we have septic systems that are leaking. There’s a lot of evidence in certain areas that have high bacteria that there’s a lot of wildlife — waterfowl, deer, raccoons. It could be that water is not appropriate for shellfishing.”

“We’ve been very aggressive in our stormwater abatement program for decades,” he added. “We could not attribute any of our shellfish closures to municipal runoff…. Logic is not going to save the day here. This is not going to be solved at the town level. It needs to be solved at the political level.”

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Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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