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Nov 11, 2008 11:19 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

State closes shellfishing because of staff shortages

Nov 11, 2008 11:19 AM

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has told Long Island townships that it will not be able to do water quality sampling in the coming months because of staffing shortages and that many small water bodies may have to be closed to shellfish harvesting until the sampling can resume.

In a letter to the East Hampton Town Trustees, the DEC’s director of its Bureau of Marine Resources, Jim Gilmore, told the Trustees that conditional shellfish areas would no longer be open to shellfishing. The Southampton Town Trustees and municipalities across Long Island received a similar letter.

Conditional shellfishing areas are bodies of water typically surrounded by heavy residential development or that do not get good tidal flushing. They are open to shellfishing on the condition that the water is tested regularly to ensure that it is not showing signs of pollution. The areas are typically open only in the cold months between late fall and early spring.

Each township typically maintains two conditional areas each year. In 2007, East Hampton opened Northwest Creek and portions of Accabonac Harbor to shellfishing. Southampton opens two of its five conditional shellfish areas each year. North Sea Harbor, Paynes Creek, Sag Harbor Cove, Flanders Bay and Seatuck Cove are designated as conditional areas in Southampton Town.

“The conditional areas are very important,” Trustees clerk Diane McNally said this week. “I hope we can do something that can get the DEC to keep these areas available.”

Certified waters and seasonal areas, which are open only in the wintertime, when bacteria levels naturally decline, will remain open.

Shellfishing in East Hampton and Southampton waters is regulated by the local trustees boards but the DEC maintains the authority to close shellfishing when public health concerns are in play, such as when pollution is washed into tidal waters by heavy rainfall.

At Monday night’s Trustees meeting in East Hampton, the board proposed doing the water quality testing themselves and presenting samples to the DEC. But Southampton Town Trustees president Jon Semlear said on Tuesday that he had spoken with Mr. Gilmore and was told the DEC cannot process the samples even if they are taken by the townships.

“As far as they are concerned, that door is closed,” Mr. Semlear, who is a commercial fisherman by trade, said. “It’s very frustrating because things are really bad right now. People are out of work, and for them to not try to make options available is wrong.”

Ms. McNally and Mr. Semlear both recalled a similar situation with conditional areas in the late 1990s, when the towns did their own sampling for the DEC to test. Southampton Town went so far at the time as to contract with the Town of Hempstead’s water resources department to have water samples analyzed independently. Mr. Semlear said that Mr. Gilmore told him independent analysis wouldn’t be possible this time around.

A high-level DEC official, who asked not to be identified, said on Tuesday that the agency’s Bureau of Marine Resources has not had its funding or staffing cut recently and that there have been no staffing changes at its laboratories that would prevent them from analyzing independent samples brought to them.

“I can’t think of any reason they wouldn’t be able to handle it all of a sudden,” the official said.

Ms. McNally said that East Hampton has discussed using an independent lab and had purchased a microscope that might allow the town’s Natural Resources Department to analyze water samples themselves.

Town Natural Resources Department director Larry Penny said the town already does its own water sampling and that submitting samples to the DEC should be a simple solution if the state is short-staffed.

In 1990, East Hampton Town sued the DEC over its refusal to allow shellfishing in some areas because regular water testing was not being done. The suit sparked the state’s efforts to test waters throughout the Island and allow conditional areas to be opened.

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