Charles Mascialino, a transplant monitor with the
Department of Environmental Conservation, watches over the
waters of Raritan Bay off the coast of Staten Island. The
New York Times
The border skirmish is waged by shirtless men in small boats
stabbing long rakes into the black muck of Raritan Bay under
the broiling sun — and by bureaucrats in Albany and Trenton.
The prize is clams, littlenecks and cherrystones, that are
meaty and healthy and once again plentiful enough to fight
After a debilitating bout with a parasite, these hardshell clams are flourishing anew in Raritan Bay, the reach of leaden water that divides the New York City borough of Staten Island from the north end of the Jersey Shore.
But its recovery has allowed the two states to revive an old dispute. Clammers and officials in New York complain that New Jersey is looking the other way as its baymen wander across the state line and dig in New York’s bottom.
“New Jersey’s encroaching on our land and not being supervised,” said Captain Bill Cunningham, who monitors New York’s clammers from a 42-foot trawler for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “They’re taking the clams that these guys aren’t allowed to take.”
New Jersey clammers say that the border is murkily defined, or that they are simply following the clams, who do not recognize invisible lines drawn in the muck. New Jersey officials say they see no problem. “As far as clammers going into New York,” said Captain Joe Meyer of the marine law enforcement bureau in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, “my guys don’t necessarily have the jurisdiction to enforce New York’s law.”
The result is a crackdown by New York conservation officers in military-grade speedboats. Since New York’s season began a little over a month ago, four New Jersey clammers have been cited at sea and ordered to appear at the criminal courthouse in Staten Island to answer charges of clam-poaching. Their three-summons packages carry maximum penalties of $750 and half a year in jail. Some aspects of the dispute have been reported in The Staten Island Advance.
It may come as a surprise that there is a shellfishery worth defending in New York City waters. But after a transplant program began in 1987 where clams dug in fecally contaminated Raritan Bay are rinsed for three weeks in cleaner waters between the forks of Long Island, the Raritan’s clam haul increased steadily until in 2001 it supplied nearly half the state’s clam harvest of 150,000 bushels.
Then QPX hit. QPX — a protozoa formally known as Quahog Parasite Unkown — is harmless to humans but disables a clam’s water pump. Faced with mounting clam mortality, New York officials halted the transplant program in 2002 to prevent QPX from being spread to the Long Island waters of Little Peconic Bay. On the New Jersey side, clamming continued because New Jersey’s Raritan Bay clam fishery is self-contained since the state has depuration plants on the bay where clams can be flushed of fecal bacteria in two days.
Three years later, the QPX outbreak appeared to have mostly run its course, and in 2005 New York reopened about a third of its 10,000 acres of Raritan Bay clam beds. This year, the state opened another 2,200 acres, including several sections along the New Jersey border, where clamming grounds that had not been touched (not legally anyway) in five years were found to be teeming.
Hence the renewed rivalry.
“At the beginning of this year,” Mike Pember, a New York clammer who also runs a company that trucks clams to Long Island for transplanting, said of his New Jersey counterparts, “they were working right next to us. That’s how arrogant they are.”
Last Wednesday, under the watchful eye of Captain Cunningham, the 11 New York clammers on the water had their patch of bay to themselves, save for the hungry blackflies.
Digging clams is strenuous, abs-sculpting work. The digger jerks the clam rake along the bottom as the basket at the end fills with clams. He and his helper haul the rake up through 20 feet of water and dump about 200 clams onto a pan for sorting. Then they do it again, 10 or 15 times an hour, as their boat drifts slowly with the tide.
As the sun beat down, the clammers worked in near-silence, broken only by the occasional wisecrack directed at Captain Cunningham.
“Bring us any lemonade?” asked Tim Ryan, head of the Staten Island Baymen’s Association, a 25-year-old clammer with “Hell or High Water” tattooed across his lower back.
Captain Cunningham, a 55-year-old Coast Guard veteran, trained his binoculars on a suspicious cluster of motorboats floating a half-mile off through the haze. He picked up a phone.
Lieutenant?” he barked. “Bill Cunningham. I just want to let you know that we got potentially four guys over the line out here. I don’t know how long they’re going to be here. The last couple of days they’ve plastered out of here by noon.”
The clam police came tearing across the open water at nearly 30 knots. Andrew Lubaczewski, his back to them and his rake bumping along the bottom, never stood a chance. He headed south a few minutes too late with his pockets stuffed with summonses, with such titles as “Taking Shellfish in Uncertified Waters,” “Taking Shellfish for Commercial Purposes in New York State without a Permit,” and “Possession of Untagged Shellfish.”
Mr. Lubaczewski, 26, member of a vast clamming clan, said that, drifting on open water, it can be tough to track of one’s precise position. “Unless you have a really expensive, high tech GPS system,” he said, “ it’s real hard to tell within 100 yards” His brother, he said, was clamming less than 200 feet away and was told by the officers on the police boat that he was on the right side of the line.
Another New Jersey clammer who ran afoul of the New York authorities, John Harris, said that he did have a high-tech system and that it would prove him innocent.
“They don’t know where the line is,” he said. His equipment, he said, showed him to be well within New Jersey’s boundaries — at least, that is, as shown on a chart issued by New Jersey’s Fish and Game division, which Mr. Harris said differed from other charts.
It’s not as if the New York clammers are starving or the bay bed is being picked bare. Though prices are at a historic low, so many New York clammers allowed their permits lapse during their enforced hiatus that the dozen who remain of the 80 before have all the clams they can handle and can make a thousand dollars in a day, Mr. Ryan said.
But there is principle involved, and besides, a lot can happen over the course of a clamming season. “By September,” Captain Cunningham said as he gazed out at the spot where Mr. Lubaczewski was caught, “they may need to be out there.”
Soon enough, Mr. Lubaczewski, Mr. Harris and several others will have their day in court. They will join a line going back to at least 1862, when four New Jersey men were accused of piracy after they seized a New York clamming vessel on the Raritan Bay. Their defense, The New York Times wrote, was that “the sloop was engaged in an unlawful infraction of the piscatorial and bivalvular rights of New Jersey.”
Thus, perhaps, shall it ever be. As a clamming captain told the journalist Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker in 1939 about an intrastate surf battle between the clammers of Babylon and Islip on Long Island: “They’re always fussing among themselves about the division line. That’s a fuss that’ll go on as long as there’s a clam left in the mud.”