By Annette Hinkle
Back in the mid-1980s, things weren’t looking good for the 200 or so baymen who plied the waters of the East End. Shellfish populations were collapsing, partly due to brown tide which was just taking hold, keeper limits on striped bass went from 16 to 24 inches, and the DEC put an end to the centuries old haul seining method of fishing due to concerns that bass were laced with PCBs from polluted spawning grounds up the Hudson River.
Today, there are perhaps just 20 baymen left who make a living from local waters. While it’s a far cry from the old days, those who remain may be able to credit the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery, which was created 21 years ago in response to the troubles, with helping to keep the shellfishery alive.
It’s a full time job for Frank Quevedo, a bay management specialist, and the other employees at the hatchery. Every year, the program raises up to 20 million juvenile clams, oysters and scallops at the three phase facility. This shellfish is seeded into East Hampton waters. The hatchery was created in 1989 with $164,000 from the state. In exchange, for 25 years, the hatchery will give 10 percent of its annual crop to New York, which seeds that shellfish back into state waters in the area.
“This is an enhancement program to provide baymen with shellfish so they can keep doing it as a living,” explains Quevedo, who has worked at the hatchery since graduating from Southampton College in the 1990s. “The baymen families are dwindling down, this is a program that might keep them out here.”
“It’s also for water quality purposes,” he adds. “Shellfish are natural filter feeders that cleanse the waters and keep them a good quality for fish to thrive in.”
Spring is spawning season, so Quevedo and the rest of the staff is in full production mode at the hatchery at the edge of Fort Pond Bay in Montauk. Housed in an old W.W.II torpedo barracks, the facility is operational from January to early June when the focus is on spawning and raising immature clams, oysters and scallops. From there, the operation moves to an upwelling site on Gann Road at Three Mile Harbor where fledgling shellfish are fed directly from the waters of the harbor until they increase in size. They then move to the Field Growout site near Lazy Point in Napeague where they mature on rafted trays. Finally, in late summer, they are seeded in bays and waterways where they will hopefully thrive, reproduce and eventually end up on the tables of restaurants and residents alike.
This Saturday at 2 p.m., the South Fork Natural History Society (SOFO) hosts a tour of the Montauk hatchery led by Quevedo. For those interested in a preview, the process begins with algae — the microscopic diatoms and flagellates that are food for developing shellfish. Algae production began in January at the facility, and using water pumped from Fort Pond Bay and filtered through one micron bags, the staff grows the stuff in large vats exposed to UV light until it’s ready to serve.
In the meantime, brood stock is brought in from seeding sites and placed in conditioning tanks. These three to five year old clams and oysters are used for spawn. By artificially raising the water temperature, the hatchery staff simulates a spring environment, which induces the release of sperm and eggs. Spawning occurs, eggs are fertilized and microscopic larvae grow in the hatchery room for the next two weeks where things really heat up, literally. The warm environment and food laced water helps the miniature free swimming shellfish develop.
“Ten to 14 days later, they reach the pediveliger stage,” explains Quevedo. “That’s where they stop swimming and start to set and create a shell. When oysters set, they need cultch — which is a setting environment. We put free swimming oysters in trays with cultch on the bottom, when they lose their swimming ability they will set on very finely crushed shell. They’ll then grow on the shell and will encompass it, so the oysters are not attached to each other or anything else.”
After growing in the downwelling room where their shells continue to develop, the miniature clams and oysters are moved to Gann Road and the upwelling system for a month where they will gain their nutrients directly from the sea water.
The process for scallops is slightly different. Scallops don’t lose their ability to swim and their life cycle is just 18 months — rather than the years that clams and oysters can live. They aren’t conditioned at the hatchery. Instead, scallop brood stock is brought in from the field at the end of May or early June, spawned quickly and the young moved to downwelling on Gann Road.
Finally, the shellfish moves out to Napeague Harbor to continue developing until late August when they are seeded in the wild. It will take three to five years for clams grown this summer to reach harvest size, two to three years for the oysters. And scallops from this season will be ready to harvest in 2011-12.
But be forewarned, scallop lovers, much of the hatchery’s scallop crop — some 300,000 of them — will be used as part of a three year scallop restoration study going on now through a Suffolk County Water Quality Grant.
“We’re growing them and then we have spawner sanctuaries in Napeague Harbor, Hands Creek and one in Sammy’s Beach,” explains Quevedo. “We seed them over winter and go back the following year, taking them out and access maturation to see if they’re spawning on their own.”
But Quevedo still expects next season to be good for scallops. Based on what he’s seen from the study, he believes a large natural spawn took place this year in the Peconic. Good news for the fishery and the people who make a living (and enjoy eating) from it.
“I want to make as many people as possible aware of what we’re doing,” says Quevedo. “It’s to the public’s benefit to take advantage of it. The shellfish are for water quality and a resource for fisherman to make money on, or people to eat and share with their families. That’s our reward.”
“I think our program is successful based on how long we’ve been in existence and feedback from baymen,” he adds. “We provide seeding maps to the town to show people where they can harvest. That’s rewarding for me — fisherman harvesting and seeing our product in seafood stores and in restaurants.”
To reserve for the SOFO May 1, 2010 2 p.m. tour of the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery (adults only), call 537-9735. The hatchery will also offer a tour on a Saturday in May 12. Tours of the Gann Road and Lazy Point sites are scheduled for later in summer. Call 668-4601 for details.
Top: Frank Quevedo with a brood clam