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Mar 28, 2012 9:05 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

New Shellfish Rule Blasted By Baymen

Mar 28, 2012 10:47 AM

The deep tans on the faces of the men who filed into Town Hall one evening last week were not earned lounging on a beach at a Caribbean vacation spot. They were the mid-winter tans that can be maintained in these parts only by spending long days in the sun and wind of the local bays.

The stern looks of the 40 or so baymen—some in their early 20s, others well into their 70s—was testimony to the seriousness of the rare gathering of the region’s few remaining residents who earn a living harvesting fish and shellfish in the East End’s tidal estuaries.

The issue that brought them together was a recent proposal by the Southampton Town Trustees to severely limit the harvesting of razor clams, a thin clam species that resembles a barber’s straight razor. The clams are little known to most East End residents but are hugely popular fare on the dinner tables of Asian families in New York City and have become one of the baymen’s most valuable harvests.

The fishermen said the closure of the razor clam harvest for the better part of eight months would rob them of their most important markets. They pleaded with the Trustees to take a different tack if they want to rein in the harvest of the clams, saying a shorter closure and strict limits on the number of razor clams that a bayman could harvest in a day would be preferable. They also blasted the Trustees for having adopted the closure without consulting them first.

“In the past, when decisions were made, the Trustees would call a meeting—that didn’t happen here,” said Sam Rispoli, president of the Southampton Town Baymen’s Association. The Hampton Bays bayman said that the members of the organization had agreed that some closure of the razor clam harvest was warranted, but that the one the Trustees have imposed is too long.

In January, the Trustees officially approved the closure of razor clam harvesting in Southampton waters from April 14 to December 2, citing a steep decline in the number of razor clams in town waters. They noted that historically harvesting razor clams had been only a wintertime activity, but the practice has expanded steadily as demand from the city’s Asian market burgeoned. Closing the harvest in the warmer months, when fish and other shellfish species are available and in higher demand, would preserve the razors for when other profits are scarce. The highest demand for razor clams comes in January, during the run-up to the Chinese New Year.

“It’s a very lucrative fishery, and it’s a very defined fishery, meaning it can only withstand just so much pressure,” Trustee Fred Havemeyer said. “The last thing we want to do is stand back and encourage a boom-and-bust cycle.”

But baymen countered that the number of razor clams in recent decades has ballooned from traditional levels, and that the reliability of income from other harvests—most notably bay scallops—has declined steeply, the reason the number of baymen working local waters now numbers only a few dozen.

“We have 15 times the amount of razor clams we had in the 1960s—the last set, in 2010, was enormous,” said Ken Mades, noting that large flats of sand building near the mouth of ocean inlets are prime habitat for the oceanic razor clams. “And there’s not much else for the baymen to do.”

Bayman Dean Colomob suggested that instead of the broad closure, the Trustees should turn to a daily harvest limit for each bayman to tamp down the impacts on the razor clams between spawning “sets,” which can be enormous when they happen but sometimes miss a year for various reasons. Limits might have saved the Trustees and the baymen from the pressing concern for the stock that spurred the closure in the first place, he said.

“A year ago, I pushed for a limit—I said 500 pounds per day, and I compromised to 1,000 pounds per day—but certain individuals did not want any limit,” he said. “So we went out and caught as many as we could. The more we caught, the more the price went down, and the more we had to catch. A limit would have controlled that better than anything.”

Trustee Jon Semlear, who, along with Trustee Ed Warner Jr. is a professional bayman and harvests razor clams, said that another concern is a growing doubt by the general population about the method used by baymen to harvest razor clams: a process called “churning,” in which the bayman uses a gasoline-powered outboard boat motor mounted on a bracket to blow the razor clams out of the sandy bay bottoms. The method has proven to be the only way to get at the razor clams, which bury too deeply in the sand to be reached with standard clam rakes and cannot be shoveled up since none of Southampton’s productive razor clam areas are exposed at low tide.

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Wow - I see both side here. Tough call, but the Trustees are being cautious and careful until they can figure out a good plan. While this is bittersweet for the Baymen, you can't rape and pillage the environment then claim that the Trustees are not protecting that same environment. I am sure the 6th Trustee, the Baykeeper, was silently applauding this move since "churning" can't be something that he supports.

I think the Baymen and the Trustees need to work together on this to come to ...more
By rita33 (11), East Quogue on Mar 29, 12 9:52 AM
2 members liked this comment
^^^^. Wow, that's the first logical, rational comment I've seen on here in a long time.
By johnj (1024), Westhampton on Mar 29, 12 1:50 PM
In the long run the trustees are thinking ahead for future working years for the bayman. The idea of live for today the hell with tomorrow is not the answer..Carol
By Carol (109), East Quogue on Mar 30, 12 8:54 AM
While I agree with being cautious - there's no scientific backup for what the Trustees are proposing - nor do they seem to be interested in seeing what Science says. They're being completely arbitrary - how does that solve anything? These new regulations sound like parking procedures during blizzards in the city. Parking on even sides of the street on mondays and fridays only!
By Nature (2966), Hampton Bays on Mar 30, 12 10:22 AM
Shellfish and fish regulation by towns has never been such a great idea before. The locals rarely bring in ecologists to help them understand the broader implications. The trustees should take the time to study this carefully from an ecological perspective -- with the help of experts.
By bailey (52), East Hampton on Mar 30, 12 12:35 PM
Tyranny alive and well, God bless the Bayman they made this community what it is.
By LovinLife (61), East Quogue on Mar 31, 12 12:25 AM