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Once on the verge of collapse, Shinnecock Bay clams recover

J.D. Allen
Chris Gobler, the endowed chair and professor of marine sciences at Stony Brook University, spoke at Shinnecock Bay on Long Island, about improved restoration efforts of hard shell clam.

A Stony Brook University study shows hard shell clam restoration efforts in Shinnecock Bay have reached a new milestone.

In the 1970s, two-thirds of hard clams eaten in the U.S. came from Long Island, but water pollution nearly wiped out the shellfish by 2011.

A decade later, the hard clam population has increased seventeen-fold after Stony Brook University researchers and baymen replanted and monitored more than 3 million clams, according to findings published in Frontiers in Marine Science this week.

“We didn't begin to plant a single hard clam until we had more than a decade of research that would tell us ‘Where we should put the hard clam?’” said Chris Gobler, the university’s endowed chair and professor of marine science who is lead author of the study.

He referred to work started in 2004 to study poor water factors that harm the clam population in Shinnecock Bay. Clam restoration was energized by philanthropic support by the Laurie Landeau Foundation and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“To answer that question, we needed to know what's going to make them survive, what's going to maximize their ability to reproduce, and what's going to ensure that their offspring live and stay in the estuary,” he said.

J.D. Allen
A research vessel at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University Southampton.

The ongoing study encouraged collaboration between the town of Southampton and baymen to identify regions that banned clam harvest to allow habitats to be restored. In addition, the rebounding health of Shinnecock Bay has restored over 110 acres of seagrass meadows. This provides habitat for a shellfish nursery and its roots strengthen the coast against erosion.

In June, the bay was named a Hope Spot by the international organization Mission Blue as a global model for oceanic restoration.

Gobler said the clams’ recovery has also reduced the number of brown tides that cause shellfish die-offs.

“We had such poor water quality and Shinnecock Bay is that hard clams are known as ecosystem engineers, because they have an outsized effect on ecosystems,” he said. “They are filter feeders — they filter the water, like your fish tank filter, or your pool filter, to keep it clear. And the effects of those more hard clams and more filtering had been seen in the water quality.”

Gobler also credited the installation of wastewater treatment plants and upgraded septic systems that filter nitrogen to reduce pollution.

He estimated the recovered clam population has contributed over $3 million in revenue for baymen and more than $30 million in restaurants.

However, climate change continues to challenge shellfish in Long Island bays. Baymen say the scallop population is expected to have another die-off for the third consecutive year due to a parasite and new predators that thrive in warming waters.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.