Bringing Back Safe Shellfish Harvests

Those who will soon be sailing or paddling in the waters of Milton Harbor, past the coast of the Marshlands and on toward Hen Island, will again see, especially at low tide, the squirting clams and oyster beds that once were a source of food and a foundation of the early economy of Rye and…

Published May 16, 2015 2:22 AM
6 min read


shells-thThose who will soon be sailing or paddling in the waters of Milton Harbor, past the coast of the Marshlands and on toward Hen Island, will again see, especially at low tide, the squirting clams and oyster beds that once were a source of food and a foundation of the early economy of Rye and the adjoining Sound Shore.

By Howard Husock

shellsThose who will soon be sailing or paddling in the waters of Milton Harbor, past the coast of the Marshlands and on toward Hen Island, will again see, especially at low tide, the squirting clams and oyster beds that once were a source of food and a foundation of the early economy of Rye and the adjoining Sound Shore. We may take it for granted today that our waters are so inevitably contaminated that the harvesting of shellfish is consigned to the past, but must it be so? Just a few miles north in Greenwich, such harvesting is a regular pastime for residents in the fall and spring and a source of government revenue from the sale of permits; so, too, on the north shore of Long Island, within sight of Oakland Beach, where clams also bubble up. Indeed, in both nearby Connecticut and Long Island shellfish aquaculture is a major commercial business.

That the shellfish beds found between the Rye Boat Basin and American Yacht Club remain officially “uncertified” by the state Department of Environmental Conservation means that the clams and oysters which native Algonquins and colonial era settlers once enjoyed, and on which 19th-century Rye “watermen” once earned their livelihood, are off-limits today. There is good reason to believe, however, that they remain so because neither New York state nor Westchester County has made the re-opening of such beds a priority or even looked carefully as to whether it might be possible. That despite the fact that, over the past 15 years, Westchester County has spent some $350 million to improve Sound Shore water quality — a significant part of that cost borne by Rye residents whose sewer rates have skyrocketed over that time. If our beaches are cleaner, why must our shellfish remain “uncertified”?

Contamination of Westchester’s shellfish beds is not a new story.  Indeed, a Larchmont Historical Society paper notes that as early as the 1870s, New York City was dumping garbage off the Sound Shore coast — which, (as Ned Benton has written for the Society) at the time, “were a prime site for oyster harvesting, an industry that employed more than 100 families in Pelham, New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, and Rye. City Island’s fleet of 45 sloops, 25 floats, and 100 skiffs replenished a large steamer that transported the oysters to New York City — large commercial seed-beds were cultivated off-shore, including off the shore of New Rochelle and Mamaroneck.” Legal efforts to curtail dumping that contaminated the shellfish were overtaken by state legislation, in 1888, which made it “lawful to deposit dredgings, stone, earth, mud, ashes, and refuse in deep water on Long Island Sound … not less than 20 miles from the Battery of New York.”

As a result, by 1946, the law went so far not only to permit dumping, but also to prohibit shellfish harvesting. In February of that year, the Rye Chronicle reported that, “no areas along the shores of Long Island Sound in Westchester County are approved for the taking of shellfish.” Those found to be doing so faced “a fifty dollar fine or six months imprisonment.”

But with the advent of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, the newly-established Environmental Protection Agency began to set standards for modern wastewater plants — such as the New Rochelle, Port Chester, Mamaroneck and Blind Brook treatment plants, which were once sources of poorly-treated sewage. (The Blind Brook plant, which processes the vast majority of City of Rye sewage, can be found behind Disbrow Park.) It is to comply with federal standards that the County has invested the $350 million in upgrading those plants — almost all of it (with the exception of $23 million in 2008 provided by the American Economic Recovery Act, the so-called federal “stimulus” bill) raised through local sewer district charges. As a result, says Westchester County Environmental Facilities Commissioner Thomas Lauro, the outflows from those plants, which merge some half-mile off the coast of Rye Town Park, “should have no effect on water quality.  They shouldn’t have any impact at all.” 

It is worth noting that taxpayers in the City of Rye, which includes the Blind Brook and Mamaroneck sewer districts, have borne a significant portion of the cost of “tertiary treatment”, upgrading the sewage plants to the highest standard.  According to Rye City Comptroller Joseph Fazzino, rates for the Blind Brook district have, since 2001, increased by 154 percent, while those for the Mamaroneck district have increased by 83 percent. 

None of this, however, has impressed the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency that must certify any shellfish harvesting area as safe. That agency’s Office of Communication Services in its Region 3 (Long Island), in explaining why local shellfish beds remain off-limits, disagrees with Commissioner Lauro’s views on the quality of the treated water — and even the current location of the outfall.  

“The uncertified waters in Rye and Mamaroneck are adjacent to sewage outfall pipes in those regions. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) National Shellfish Sanitation Program, to protect public health, shellfish within or adjacent to the sewage treatment plant outfall pipes must be restricted from harvesting. Because areas between these outfall pipes are narrow and difficult to ensure shellfish safety, the region remains uncertified. “  

The Department, notes Lauro, appears unaware that the oyster beds of Milton Harbor, for instance, are not “immediately adjacent” to sewage outfall, whose “common connection”, according to Lauro, can be found well off the town beach shore. Moreover, the state has not even bothered to test local shellfish in recent years in order to determine whether the County’s investment in improving water quality has had a positive effect.  

Peter Constantakes, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s main office in Albany, says, “The DEC is not currently sampling the area or conducting water quality testing. DEC has not conducted water quality testing for the waters of Western Long Island Sound and in the area of Rye since the early 1990s.” (Before, in other words, the County’s significant investment in improving area treatment plants.)  

The DEC notes, too, that runoff from storm and street waters are also sources of contamination. “Pathogens related to sewage and storm water runoff are often found in Long Island Sound waters in these areas, making them unacceptable for harvest.” Discharges from basement sump pumps, adds Lauro, are also a source of contamination after storms. In Greenwich, the town’s Shellfish Commission responds to such “pollution events” by closing shellfish harvest areas not permanently but temporarily, just as local beaches are sometimes closed for the same reason. 

Shellfish harvest in Greenwich, just five miles up the coast, is popular enough that the Shellfish Commission currently boasts nearly $250,000 in its treasury, realized through the sale of permits, approximately 280 a year, according to Commission chair Roger Bowgen. He notes that the Commission receives additional funds by supplying seed clams to other coastal communities “that have been decimated, whereas we have a very healthy supply.” (Funds, he notes, go toward “local shellfish educational activities and research projects.”)  

But beyond the revenue implications for either the City of Rye or Westchester County, a revival of shellfish harvesting offers what can only be called a quality-of-life amenity. The introduction of more oysters, for instance, can create a virtuous cycle — because the shellfish help to filter pollutants and clean the water.  (For that reason, they’ve been reintroduced to the Manhattan shoreline.) Moreover, gathering clams and oysters can be an activity for parents and children, even a potential menu attraction for local restaurants. One can only assume that Ruby’s Oyster Bar, in an era in which “locally-sourced” food is in vogue and in demand, would be proud to feature a local variety of its namesake mollusk. Getting to that point would likely mean that what are now separate arms of government — the County’s Department of Environmental Facilities, the County’s Health Department and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation — would have to work together, toward the common goal of bringing back safe shellfish harvests to Rye and the Sound Shore. 

Perhaps that means the appointment of a “shellfish czar” — or perhaps it’s a role for the County Executive’s office. But it certainly seems that someone should tell Albany that, even after spending $350 million, Rye is still waiting for an order of oysters on the half-shell.


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