If you eat clams — baked, raw or otherwise — you might not want to know this: The clam you just had could be from the waters off Staten Island — water most of us won’t even swim in. Clammers harvested nearly 80,000 bushels of clams here last year, almost half the clams produced in the state.
The state lets clammers harvest here if they “transplant” the clams to cleaner waters before bringing them to market. Begun in 1987, the program is a surprising success; clams harvested in local waters are worth about $5 million a year on the wholesale market.
It’s dark when the local clammers load their boats for a day on Raritan Bay, located off the South Shore of Staten Island between Great Kills and Tottenville. Most pull out of the Tottenville and Lemon Creek marinas just before sunrise. They’re on a strict schedule, enforced by the state: Out after 5:45 a.m., back by 3 p.m.
Time is only one of the constraints on the “diggers” and “ropers” who scrape a living from the bottom of the bay. Bad weather, competition and a host of middlemen also eat into their profits.
Despite the hardships, more than 100 New Yorkers dig clams in local waters. Their presence here signifies a surprising environmental resurgence. Oil pollution, disease and sewage outflows closed the area to shellfishing for much of the 20th century. But today Raritan Bay hosts the healthiest clam beds in the state.
These waters are still too polluted to produce market-ready shellfish; the clams must spend 21 days in Little Peconic Bay and Southold Bay, Long Island, before they are ready to eat. This operation, called a relay, depends on water temperature. The relay lasts only from April to October, when the clams are actively pumping. Most of the clammers drive trucks or take on other jobs to pay the bills in the winter months. A tough living Age is another thief in an industry that demands eight hours of backbreaking labor in a pitching boat each day. The younger men are cocky; they can harvest seven to 10 bushels of clams a day, a haul worth up to $600. They don’t yet know the back trouble and chronic pains that plague the older diggers.
At 63, Joe Woronowicz — “Joe the Russian” — isn’t the oldest of the diggers, but he looks it. A slight stoop, gray-and-yellow walrus mustache and ruddy face give him the aura of another era. On this gray July morning he is moving slowly. He is one of 21 Long Island clammers working out of the Tottenville Marina, and he has been up since 4 a.m.
Most of the other boats are out of the dock at 6:30, but Woronowicz is still setting up. His roper, 22-year-old Stapleton resident Finster Turrentine, makes the most of the delay, shooting the breeze with a roper who didn’t get a spot on a boat today.
Woronowicz has a good excuse for his lateness. A bad back and a hernia make his every move deliberate, and slow.
“Nobody’s going to pay to fix it for me and I can’t afford to take off to get it done,” he says.
It’s no surprise the diggers suffer from back pains. State law prohibits the use of any mechanical equipment on their boats, so they rely on strength alone to haul 60 pounds of clams and mud out of the water on 30- to 50-foot poles.
“The tide’s pulling the rake under the boat, and you’re pulling all day,” Woronowicz says. “Almost everybody has back problems.”
The roper helps reel in the catch on a long rope tied to the rake.
Woronowicz prepares the metal poles, which will telescope out to the needed length, but now rest on the port side deck. His vessel is a weathered — in places, crumbling — 23-foot inboard. The original finish is cracked and peeling and several generations of fiberglass repairs are visible on the deck. A thick red rope lies coiled in one corner. It’s the only thing on the boat that looks new.
He fishes around for an extra life jacket while his roper describes the perfect clamming day.
“Slight wind, little sun, not too hot, shorter flow of tide,” Turrentine says.
The pull of the tide is key, Woronowicz says. It runs hardest during a full moon, adding weight to a rake full of clams.
The boat finally pulls out, speeding around the leafy southern tip of Staten Island. Before leaving the dock, the other clammers joked about the noise of “the Russian’s” engine. They were right; it roars like a big truck going uphill.
After a while Woronowicz points to the other clammers, silhouetted against the bay. Their vessels are fairly close together, and they are hard at work. As we approach, another digger shouts that he’s already got about 500 clams — one bushel — enough to fill one bag.
Humans have pulled shellfish from these waters for hundreds of years. Lenape Indians collected oysters here, and the nation’s oldest continuously settled free black community, Sandy Ground, was a haven for the baymen who harvested oysters here. In the 1870s the industry employed 10,000 to 17,000 people and generated up to $40 million a year.
But a typhoid outbreak in the 1920s — tied to oysters dug from Raritan Bay — closed the area to shellfishing. The oyster industry here was dead. Legal clamming did not resume in the bay again until 1980, when a plant that cleaned the clams in purified sea water was built on Staten Island.
Water pollution made local shellfish otherwise inedible, a problem that persists to this day.
Clams are able to tolerate some degree of pollution, however, and state officials say Raritan Bay now hosts the healthiest clam beds in New York waters.
“The clam population out there is the most healthy, the most reproductively robust and probably the fastest growing clam bed in New York state,” said Gordon Colvin, director of the Division of Marine Resources for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The water is choppy and Woronowicz works the rake. The pain — from his back or his hernia or both — slows him down. He stops every few seconds and looks at the horizon, then bows his head and gives the rake a few repetitive yanks.
When he is ready to haul up the catch, Turrentine springs into action. Hand over hand, the younger man reels in the rope so quickly he looks as if he’s punching the waves.
The rake finally appears, and Woronowicz dips it in the water a few times to clear the mud. He dumps the haul into a weathered yellow laundry basket. Turrentine moves the clams to the culling racks balanced on the bow.
The racks sort the clams by size. The top rack captures the biggest clams, called “chowders,” letting the smaller, more valuable “little necks” slide through narrow grooves to the “seed rack” below. The seeds go back into the ocean.
“The big ones are not really worth much,” says Turrentine, setting them aside.
“This one’s the money,” he says, picking up the seed rack to display a few dozen of the smaller clams. A slim profit margin
On this boat, but not the others, the digger and roper alternate jobs. Perhaps because of his health problems, Woronowicz periodically asks Turrentine to work the rake.
On other boats the division of labor is more strict. The diggers are the boat owners. They do the harder labor and take most of the money from the day’s haul, but also shoulder the burden of keeping the operation going.
Their expenses are steep. Woronowicz says each digger must pay for DEC oversight and security. Repairs, the boat slip, roper’s fee and gas and equipment can bring the weekly bill to $1,000 a week. If a digger skips out without paying the marina, the crew chief (Woronowicz) has to cover the debt. An injury, engine failure or spate of bad weather can cut the margins thin.
The diggers depend on the ropers, and an uneasy alliance has formed between the older white men who own most of the boats and the younger ropers, many of whom are black and Latino.
Turrentine’s uncle, West Brighton resident Paul Johnson, introduced him to the trade. Johnson says he is saving to buy his own boat and equipment. If he does, he will be one of the first black diggers to work the relay.
Turrentine says he is happy to have a decent job. His last one, in a K-Mart stock room, paid minimum wage.
“I would say the money’s better, yes, in the ocean,” he says.
Some attribute the success of the Raritan Bay clamming industry to the labor-intensive methods the local clammers use. It was state legislators from Staten Island who sponsored the law prohibiting mechanical devices on clamming boats in Raritan Bay. The law makes the clammers’ job harder, limits their profits and may even contribute to their injuries. But it also protects the resource on which they depend.
“There’s a feeling that it’s that kind of ‘legislative inefficiency’ that preserves the clam beds,” said Colvin. “Inefficiency does slow down the harvest; let’s face it.”
Woronowicz puts it more simply.
“Our product depends on the environment,” he says.
Article title: Raritan Bay’s great revival
Author: Diana Yates
Source: Staten Island Advance, 8/4/2002
The rebirth of the area’s clamming industry has put more than 100 New Yorkers to work in the last 15 years. But although clammers harvest nearly 80,000 bushels of clams a year from the waters off Staten Island — nearly half the clams produced in the state — the industry is not controlled by local operators.
Because the waters of Raritan Bay are too polluted to produce market-ready clams, the shellfish are transferred from local waters to Little Peconic Bay and Southold Bay off Long Island for 21 days of purification before going to market. The 15-year-old transplant program employs hundreds more people to relay the clams to Long Island waters and then to market.
The Raritan Bay clams are now worth about $5 million a year, wholesale. That success, coupled with declining clam populations elsewhere, means competition for local transplant permits is getting fierce.
Staten Island clammers complain they have never received a transplant permit to work in local waters. Clammers from Suffolk County, L.I., hold every one of the permits here; Staten Islanders who want to clam in Raritan Bay must work for a Long Island permit-holder.
The rivalry has led to complaints to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which awards the permits, and a few “unexplained incidents” at local marinas, where the clammers keep their boats.
“Things have been known to happen in the middle of the night,” said one Staten Island clammer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Tire slashings and other property damage occur when tensions rise, the clammer said.
The locals claim their Long Island counterparts get preferential treatment from the state. State officials say they award the permits in an impartial manner.
The Long Island clammers were the first to work here when the transfer program began in 1987. They had had years in the business, and were already connected to marketing and distribution networks. The Long Islanders hired local diggers to increase their haul.
Up to nine diggers can work on one transplant permit, but the diggers must sell their catch to the permit-holder, at the price the permit-holder is willing to pay.
“We want a permit so we’re not forced to sell to one buyer,” said Michael Ogno, a Prince’s Bay resident who started clamming last year. The transplant permits would enable the local clammers to negotiate a better price for their catch, he explained. Now, the Staten Island diggers “have to take what they give us,” he said.
“There’s nine permits,” Ogno said. “But [the state] won’t issue one to the Staten Island people.”
Today, 84 Staten Island clammers work under Long Island permit-holders in Raritan Bay.
Ogno said state officials assured the local clammers in April they were next in line for a permit. So when he learned two permits would become available in May, he filled out an application. Two Long Island clammers got there first.
“We’ve been there for years,” said a local digger, who asked not to be identified, “and these guys just came in and got them.”
Even some of the Long Island diggers believe the situation is unfair.
“Why did they [Long Islanders] get two permits when the local guys asked for permits years ago?” asked Joe Woronowicz. “I’m from Long Island, but I respect that I’m a guest here.”
The DEC Division of Marine Resources issues the transplant permits. Its director, Gordon Colvin, said the rules have always been clear: Those who hold permits at the end of one year may renew them at the beginning of the next. Other applicants get put on a waiting list. As the permits become available, those with completed applications who are at the top of the list will get them. The Long Island clammers who received the two permits got their applications in first, Colvin said.
Ogno admits that inexperience played a part in the Staten Islanders’ failure to obtain even one of the permits.
“No one from Staten Island knew they had to fill out an application [ahead of time],” he said, even though they had several conversations with DEC officials about their desire for transplant permits.
“They’re not businessmen. They’re just local diggers,” he said.
Staten Island clammers are at an even greater disadvantage, because some townships in Long Island will allow only residents of those townships to harvest clams in their waters. Historically, said Colvin, those areas with residency requirements for clammers also offer the richest clam beds.
Battle goes way back
The competition for transfer permits is the result of dire environmental realities elsewhere. Long Island harvesters always dominated the shellfish industry in New York waters, but oyster and clam stocks in areas north and south of Long Island are in decline today.
The first inhabitants and earliest settlers of Staten Island and Long Island harvested oysters in these waters. The 1880s marked the highest recorded oyster harvests in the mid-Atlantic region. But over-harvesting, parasites and pollution gradually depleted oyster stocks.
Clams fared better than oysters, however, said Colvin.
“Oysters are finicky creatures, very vulnerable to pollutants and disease,” he said. “Hard clams are not particularly finicky about water quality where they live.”
Clammers worked in Raritan Bay and in the waters off Long Island. But an outbreak of typhoid linked to oysters from Raritan Bay closed the bay to shellfishing in 1920.
The oyster industry was dead, and the clams were too polluted to eat. But in 1980, a plant that cleaned the clams in purified sea water was built on Staten Island and the clam harvest here revived. The “depuration” plant closed a few years later, and the transplant program began in 1987.
The waters here are still too impure to produce market-ready clams. The state requires clammers to “purge” the clams in cleaner waters elsewhere before they can be sold.
Recovery in Raritan Bay
The clammers say conditions in Raritan Bay have improved in recent decades. One clammer, West Islip, L.I. resident Scott Commins, said he remembers when rocks on the shoreline were perpetually coated with oil. Tankers would discharge oily bilge and flush out their tanks right in the bay. The federal Environmental Protection Agency put a stop to that, and began making regular surveillance flights over the bay. The 1972 Clean Water Act also mandated sewage be treated before it was released.
Better water quality may account for the health of the Raritan Bay clam beds. But the clamming industry in Long Island hasn’t yet recovered, said Commins, thanks to “too many brown tides, too much pollution.”
Nearly 10,000 diggers worked in New York waters in the mid-1970s, said Colvin, most of them in Long Island. Great South Bay alone produced nearly half of the nation’s clams.
But the clams in Great South Bay have stopped growing normally, and “no one’s sure what’s causing it,” Colvin said. Today fewer than 2,000 diggers are on the job statewide.
The result is that Raritan Bay has displaced Long Island in clam productivity. More clams are harvested here each year than in any other bay or harbor in the state.
Staten Island clammers are the beneficiaries of this resurgence. As they gain experience, they will most likely move up the industry food chain, securing for themselves a more stable, and profitable, niche.
From now on, said Ogno, “I’m going to have my application in all the time.”
“If a permit drops,” he said, “I’m going to be the first in line.”
Article title: Return of clamming has limited rewards
Author: Diana Yates
Source: Staten Island Advance, 8/5/2002