Shellfish output quadruples at upgraded town hatchery

John Asbury for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Hempstead Town biologists hope that breeding their own clams and oysters can help clean up Reynolds Channel.

Officials recently completed upgrades to the town’s shellfish hatchery in Point Lookout under a $400,000 state grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation to add new climate-controlled algae-growing pods, which are a primary food source for oysters and clams.

Town officials said the hatchery expansion quadrupled the town’s output of shellfish, which will be bred in-house using clams gathered from local waterways and then later returned to the bay to control nitrogen pollution.

“Most people don’t realize the amazing work our scientists are doing to try to save our waterways,” Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen said. “We are greatly enhancing the ability to remove contaminants. It’s an existential issue. We’re surrounded by water, and we have to protect our waterways.”

The town’s hatchery has 11 tanks that can grow nearly 11 million clams and oysters at a time and a continuous algae culture system that can grow algae to feed shellfish.

Previously, the town used a greenhouse to grow algae that would vary in temperatures from 50 to 115 degrees, said hatchery staff member Matt O’Connor. The algae needs a steady light source and sterile conditions to grow on site.

The state grant covered extending the platform under the elevated hatchery site that sits on the bay and survived superstorm Sandy. The expansion built two new rooms for algae and shellfish growth, expanding from 2 million clams and oysters to more than 10 million, O’Connor said.

The reintroduction of shellfish is also expected to be a boon to the commercial fishing industry that harvest clams and oysters from certain approved areas in the bay.

“This is something that thrives in our waterways that will help clean the bay by removing nitrogen,” O'Connor said. “Clams filter everything that comes across their mouths. It’s important we test our water so clams are in open areas that are safe for consumption and people aren’t put at risk.”

Biologists induce shellfish to spawn by simulating cold water from winter and then running warm water over them. The created larvae are isolated and ground in various tanks until they can be released into the bay.

Previously the town purchased clam seedlings at about $100 per thousand with a $25,000 to $35,000 budget, but now the town can produce clams by the millions.

The oysters are bred by placing seedlings on shells gathered by the town and collected from local seafood restaurants. The town has also used the shells as a natural habitat by dropping them off boats into the bay.

“We have to restore our ecosystem, where we once had a thriving marine life population that was depleted from what was once naturally here,” Gillen said. “It’s important this work continues, and I hope the next administration will support these efforts and funding for the project.”

The town’s grant is part of $1.6 million to four Long Island municipalities to improve their public shellfish hatcheries, including Brookhaven, East Hampton and Islip.

“With the completion of this shellfish hatchery, we’re taking an important step in restoring and revitalizing aquatic life in the bays of the Long Beach Barrier Island,” Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said. “This substantial investment in our environment will have long lasting positive effects on the local economy and surrounding communities.”

Hempstead shellfish hatchery expansion:

  • Using state $400,000 grant
  • Facility in Point Lookout
  • Capable of growing nearly 11 million oysters and clams
  • Shellfish will be used to remove nitrogen from Reynolds Channel