Gregg Rivara, Aquaculture Specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension. (Courtesy of Friends of Bellport Bay)

September 9, 2020

Not Always as Happy as a Clam: The Cultural Clashes Underpinning Long Island’s Shellfishing Industry

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misrepresented a source.

The year is 1686. King James II looks on anxiously from his plushy throne in England as his New York colonial subjects become increasingly unruly. To tighten his grip on the settlers and quell whispers of rebellion, he appoints Thomas Dongan, a Royalist military officer, to govern the New York territory and issue decrees known as Dongan Patents for the creation of trustee-run towns across the royal province. One of these towns was Long Island’s Town of Brookhaven.

A key proclamation in the Dongan Patent states that the town and its residents would have collective jurisdiction over the natural resources of the area, including “the tracts and necks of lands, gardens, pastures, woods, trees and marshes,” as well as swamps, beaches, harbors and importantly, the seafloor. It grants “freeholders and inhabitants” of the town the eternal right to “enjoy without hindrance” the bounties of the bays, partaking freely in activities like clamming and fishing.

Despite having been written nearly 340 years ago, the Dongan Patent remains extremely relevant to three specific groups of the Long Island population: Shellfish farmers, shellfish diggers and environmental activists. Shellfish farmers, or growers, raise oysters from larvae in hatcheries, while shellfish diggers, as the name suggests, go out and dig for clams with a clam rake and sometimes a small rig. Both growers and diggers sell their shellfish commercially to restaurants and markets for consumption.

I spoke with Gregg Rivara, a Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Aquaculture Specialist and the Director of the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center. Rivara works closely with commercial and non-commercial shellfish growers and other scientists, conducting research with an ultimate goal of keeping Long Island’s shellfish population sustainable. He also works with shellfish diggers, helping them solve problems and obtain the permits required to clam in certain waters. Gregg and his wife Karen Rivara, a marine biologist and the President of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, are in a unique position at the center of a conflict between scientists, environmental activists and shellfish farmers. They are knowledgeable about all things aquaculture, from the history of the industry to shellfish capacity for carbon sequestration, and helped me unpack this drama.

Long Island, like many coastal areas, has a vibrant shellfishing economy with rich historical and cultural value dating back thousands of years, long before European colonization. Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation have been shellfishing and farming for centuries and many post-colonial Long Island towns were established in their present locations based on the area’s abundance of shellfish. Groups like the Brookhaven Baymen’s Association, of which most members are clam diggers, have remained quite powerful in local politics over the decades, even centuries. The Baymen have formed strong, unified coalitions with enough weight to sway town elections by promising substantial voter support to local politicians. Backed by the Dongan Patent, they have enjoyed (some would say exploited) the bounties of Long Island’s Great South Bay shellfish populations for decades.

At present, the Great South Bay is in critical condition. Decades of nitrogen pollution due to coastal overdevelopment after World War II, coupled with severe overharvesting of shellfish beginning in the 1960s and 70s, removing clams that naturally keep the bay healthy, have turned parts of it into a brown, murky dead zone. This is where environmental activist groups enter the scene.

Environmental organizations like Friends of Bellport Bay, a nonprofit based in Brookhaven, N.Y., maintain that groups like the Baymen’s Association are partially responsible for the destruction of bay-bottom ecosystems crucial to the health of the bay and survival of its many species. Thomas Shultz, an environmental activist and the President of Friends of Bellport Bay, explained that when diggers move through an area of the bay, raking up clams to sell commercially, they also rip up eelgrass beds and other shellfish colonies that filter out nitrogen from the bay water, sequester carbon and serve as a habitat for other animals to survive.

Thomas Shultz (left), President of Friends of Bellport Bay. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Bellport Bay)

Thomas Shultz (left), President of Friends of Bellport Bay. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Bellport Bay)

To Thomas, the short term goal of clam diggers, obtaining shellfish to sell for consumption and using unsustainable methods, has major long-term implications that are pushing an already suffering ecosystem to its breaking point. Organizations like Friends of Bellport Bay and The Billion Oyster Project are on a mission to revitalize marine environments by growing and planting oysters directly onto the seafloor and establishing protected shellfish management areas that are legally untouchable by clam diggers. “In a perfect world, I would ban shellfishing for 20 years to let the ecosystem rebuild itself and let the shellfish naturally repopulate,” explains Thomas, “but that’s not realistic for the Baymen who do this for a living, so we need to compromise by establishing protected shellfish management areas so we can move towards restoration.”

This summer, the Town of Brookhaven voted to protect a two-acre parcel of land on the bay bottom for shellfish restoration, a huge victory for the environmentalists after years of legal struggles and extremely vocal opposition, most aggressively from the Baymen’s Association. The area would be used to revitalize the bay’s oyster population and serve as a footprint for future expansion of the sanctuary. This decision seems like it would be a victory for all parties involved, including the clam diggers and shellfish farmers. A healthier, more productive bay means, eventually, an abundance of clams to be dug and sold, yet unsurprisingly, this was not welcome news for the Baymen.

Recall the Dongan Patent mentioned earlier in this article, which clearly states that the bay bottom must remain accessible “without hindrance” to all. To the Baymen, this decision by the Town of Brookhaven is an infringement on their right to clam in whatever area of the bay bottom they please. To activists like Thomas, protecting this area is still well within the boundaries of the Dongan Patent, since shellfish restoration improves the overall health of the ecosystem, which defends the eternal right of all people to fully enjoy the resources of a thriving bay. With no shellfish management areas, the quality of the bay is diminished for the benefit of only a few individuals.

Two acres is a relatively small area, but this decision marks a turning point in the power dynamic that has defined this niche population’s social and political structures for the past three and a half centuries. This vote, Thomas explained, is an indication of a broader cultural shift and could pave the way for greater success in future requests for bay bottom protection and management areas.

Karen Rivara operates a farm herself, selling oysters commercially for food, providing oyster larvae to other farms and to environmental groups that grow oysters for restoration purposes. She also might be considered an environmentalist herself, as farming oysters is sustainable since it removes nitrogen and carbon from the bay. She is familiar to and friends with lots of farmers, baymen, baymen turned farmers and environmentalists, but has also learned to anticipate fallouts if she comes out in support of one group and not another. She explained, the vote to protect the two-acre plot angered Baymen, but it also concerned other farmers who feared that planting hundreds of thousands, even millions, of shellfish in the area would have broader effects on the commercial oyster market as a whole.

Oyster farming involves huge input costs. The farmer has to acquire land to establish the farm, equipment and large quantities of expensive oyster larvae, which require significant care and therefore hefty labor costs. Diggers, on the other hand, have little to no input costs according to Karen. Essentially, if they can get a clam rake and perhaps a small clam boat, they’re ready to harvest and can sell their shellfish to markets at a lower price than farmers, since diggers do not need to account for input costs.

(Rae Specht / Sun Staff Writer)

(Rae Specht / Sun Staff Writer)

Additionally, shellfish are expensive. When they are planted on the bay bottom, it’s simply impossible to ensure that none will be taken, despite legally designating the site as a protected area. Oysters, for example, are sold for approximately 1 dollar-per-piece to market, so say 1,000 oysters are planted in the protected area for restoration purposes. If the boundaries of the area were ever to be breached (either accidentally or intentionally), the stakes are much higher for the environmental group who purchased, grew and planted the oysters and for the farmers with high input costs who would be adversely affected if the oysters were illegally collected by diggers and sold to markets for a profit. The success of a restoration area requires immense levels of trust between all parties who may not always harbor warm feelings toward each other.

The Rivara’s involvement with all three of these groups has also enabled them to deeply understand the cultural disconnect underpinning this clash. Coastline gentrification, wealthy individuals moving into waterfront towns and in turn pushing out and undermining existing working-class individuals and industries, is a major point of contention. Through Cornell Cooperative Extension, Gregg works closely with other academics and environmentalists who are highly educated, well-intentioned and oftentimes well-to-do. He and Karen explained, while these individuals certainly have the bay’s best interest in mind, they don’t truly understand what it’s like to work out on the water, making a living with a natural resource-dependent job. That two-acre plot of recently protected land is located in an area of the bay that is sheltered from harsh winds and was formerly a part of the “winter grounds” where Baymen go to dig for clams in the coldest, harshest months, Gregg explained. “It’s freezing and dangerous to go out in the bay in the winter. They’re risking their lives. The winter grounds are a place where they can go when it’s cold and rough and still make their day’s pay.”

It’s an extremely complex dilemma without a clear solution, or an absolute right or wrong. Underlying this conflict is not merely differing interpretations of a 340-year-old royal decree, but a deeper disconnect between three groups of very different people who ultimately have very similar objectives. They all care strongly about the bay and want to be able to benefit from it. Perhaps Dongan’s promise to grant “all freeholders and inhabitants” the eternal right to “enjoy without hindrance” all of the bay’s resources isn’t quite realistic in practice and will require compromise from everyone.


Rae Specht is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].