Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Severe Brown Tide is Killing the Bays

Image of clams.

The south shore of Long Island is comprised of several bays, together comprising the South Shore Estuary Reserve (SSER). Great South Bay (GSB), the largest shallow estuarine bay in NY, is a sub region of the South Shore Estuary Reserve. The bay once produced half of all our nation’s clams. Dozens of recreationally important fish depend on its waters, including summer flounder, striped bass, and weakfish. The GSB is also home to several endangered species, including the peregrine falcon, roseate tern, and the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. Since 1985 there have been sporadic periods of "Brown Tide", a type of algae, which damages the bay’s ecosystem. This year In 2011, the brown tide bloom stretchedes from Moriches Bay in the east to Oyster Bay to the west. This harmful outbreak is the most severe, longest bloom recorded to date. The SSER’s clams and marine life are in jeopardy—the federal government needs to help!

What is Brown Tide?

Brown tide is a type of algae known as aureococcus anophagefferens. The algae causes the water body to appear a brownish coffee color, blocking much needed sunlight to the bottom of the bay. Brown tide is not harmful to humans; however, it can be disastrous to marine and plant life. The algae produce a chemical that makes it harder for clams and other bivalves to feed, causing them to starve. The blockage of sunlight to the bottom of the bay kill’s sea grasses—important nursery habitat for shellfish and finfish. Brown tide results in millions of dollars of economic loss to our region.

Importance of Clams

In the 1970’s 700,000 bushels of hard clams, which was half of the nation’s harvest, came from the Great South Bay. The shellfish filtered more than 40% of the bay’s waters. Today less than 10,000 bushels of clams are harvested from the bay and only 1% of its waters are filtered naturally. Without shellfish, water quality declines and creatures that depend on clams, scallops, and oysters as a food source also suffer. Although over harvesting of clams was partly responsible for a rapid decline in this fishery during the 1980’s, the inability of the clams to recover has been exacerbated by the recurrence of brown tide since 1985. A healthy clam population could help control brown tide blooms because clams clean the water by filter-feeding.

Federal Assistance Requested

In 2008, the most extensive, longest lasting brown tide outbreak on record occurred. It started in April, which is two months earlier than normal, and extended into the west to South Oyster Bay for the first time. In an effort to assist our clammers and the restoration of the clam population, Senator Charles Schumer and Governor David Paterson submitted a request to the US Secretary of Commerce urging him to declare a "Commercial Fishery Failure for Hard Clams in the Great South Bay". Over 15,000 signatures and 4,000 individual letters were submitted to the Secretary of Commerce supporting the designation. If granted, the declaration could provide federal funding for clam restoration and re-seeding efforts.

In October of 2008, the Department of Commerce requested additional information regarding the clam population, the causative factors, and the economic impacts. The NYS DEC has submitted this additional data, which highlights the clam population crash and its economic impact on our region. The DEC estimates that the "wholesale (dockside) value of the Great South Bay hard clam fishery at its peak landings in 1976 was approximately $12 million ... this represented an estimated economic return of $51 million to the State’s economy." In 2008, the dockside value of the hard clams was at its lowest - a mere $600,000.

The Department of Commerce has yet to declare a "Commercial Fishery Failure for Hard Clams in the Great South Bay." CCE continues to advocate for this important declaration.

Updated by bsmith 2/17/12