The Islip Public Library meeting room was already half filled with people streaming in, long before the start of the Historical Society of Islip Hamlet’s “Islip’s Bay …
The Islip Public Library meeting room was already half filled with people streaming in, long before the start of the Historical Society of Islip Hamlet’s “Islip’s Bay Heritage” discussion.
They came, like Valerie Schuster, who was talking to lifelong fisherman, clammer, and duck hunter Peter Johnston, because “this is a local thing, and we all grew up treading clams.” By the time the program started, it was standing room only.
Johnston joined Frank Sloup, a commercial fisherman; clammer Ken Tooker; Leslie Clock, who owns a home on Captree Island; and Emmett O’Hara, who raises oysters for sale. The panel beguiled the crowd for almost two hours.
Leslie Schwann, whose family goes back several generations, moderated the night and gave this statistic. The Great South Bay is the largest shallow bay in New York. Half the clams in the 1970s came in from the Great South Bay and there were 6,500 licensed fishermen then.
O’Hara was a relative newcomer, but for all of them, their talks revealed resourcefulness, a lifelong love of the water, an abiding respect for the environment they worked in, as well as concern for its health.
Sloup said he made his first sales with clams at 7 years old. “As I got older, I got more and more involved,” he said. Sloup is a one-man operation with different workers who’s out on the water in his boat, the Bay Bum, a 35-foot lobster vessel-style built for the bay, between 5 and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. He shoves out of Islip by Dean’s Seafood seven days a week. Sloup initially wanted to be a schoolteacher, got his B.A. in science, B.A. in education and an M.A. in education, working the waters all through that time. In the end, it was back to the bay. “I’m not clamming anymore,” he said. “It’s frustrating what the state does,” said Sloup in his talk. “Last year, the state said that conch have to be 5 and a half inches. On the North Shore, it’s 4 and a half inches. And it’s a shame I had to return beautiful fish in the water because of government regulations.” He also reiterated that striped bass are more than back. Now, Sloup said he fishes for blowfish, shiners, crabs and conches. He said he works one pot a minute.
Schwann asked if people poached his traps. “Every day,” he said. “About 225 to 500 a day are gone. There’s no place a pot is safe.”
While the bay can be beautiful, those who work on the water experienced scary times. You had to notice patterns of the winds. Weather wasn’t always cooperative; sometimes the bay froze, and you had to watch for upcoming storms and make sure you got back before dark. There were no cell phones. A warm change of clothing was a necessity, but even with that, if you got wet you had to keep going. There were bills to pay.
“I remember in 1972 it got very rough, and I spent the night on West Island,” recalled Sloup of one of those times. “We stayed until the wind died down and I came home.”
Johnston grew up near Islip High School and would fish for tuna and swordfish during 10-day forays. He also takes care of the 20-acre Havemeyer Estate and works the waters for clams and scallops. The best times for scallops, he said, were the end of September, beginning of October. Their lifespan is 18 months, he said. “Things seem to be better,” he said of the bay. “Mother Nature, if you leave it alone, it repairs itself. They say there’s no fluke and blue fish and there’s plenty.” He spoke about the frustrations with New York State regulations. “New Jersey regulations are more supportive of fishermen,” he said, adding there are lower quantity and bag limits.
Ken Tooker began clamming in 1967. When the Vietnam War ended, the bay provided a rich source of income for returning servicemen, and they gravitated to the bay. “I was in the middle of a phenomenon,” he said. “Clamming, you made a great living. In winter you had periods of time to get by, and it teaches you to survive.” Tooker bought his first house when he was 20. He left clamming in 1986, has since built personal vessels, and captains fishing boats out of Captree, piloting 100 to 200 half-day trips a season.
“Ninety-nine percent of the catch go back. It’s not a bad job.”
“When I left, there were still plenty left,” he said. “Then there were none. The comeback came in the Moriches and by Jones Beach. I think it will come back on leased land. It will be more regulated. But part of the bay is in trouble. Something is going on.” He mentioned the effect of the Southwest Sewer District. “Thirty species died,” he said.
Schwann brought up clam pirates.
“The poaching was real,” Tooker said. “Some did make serious money doing it and were doing 100 miles an hour in the dark (eluding discovery).”
He also spoke about ducks and their presence in the marshes after Schwann’s inquiry.
“Now there’s someone out every day and a lot have driven out the ducks,” he said. “We also have invasive cormorants, and they eat fish constantly. The marshes are important. You don’t see killies anymore.” In a nutshell, they provide shore protection from erosion and vital food and habitat for clams, crabs, and juvenile fish.
Clock has lived 74 years seasonally on Captree Island. “My son has been going out finding scallops and seed clams, but it’s pockets,” she said. “If you care, then please try to get involved,” and mentioned groups like the Islip Town Environmental Council and Seatuck Environmental Association. “We’re seeing a lot of oyster farms coming and they help to filter the water.” Clock recalled a childhood that was immersed in nature and several enveloping generations. “We’d go clamming, crabbing. We’d set up plays and it was always in the water. And we watched the stars at night. You didn’t feel the need for entertainment because you were watching the birds, fish, and building a fire together. Dad was a roofer and a fisherman and crabber, and we ate everything he caught. Mom made our clothes and cut our hair.” There are 15 houses there now; Clock leases the land.
O’Hara left corporate life over four years ago and now owns Shamrock Oyster Company, leasing 125 acres of certified waters from Islip Town. He’s among 25 other oyster farmers with leases.
“There’s a waiting list of 300 people,” he said. “You have to be permitted by the DEC to work in aquaculture.” It’s a procedure, he said, that includes the Department of Environmental Conservation, Army Corps of Engineers, and Islip Town. “The 125 acres is in Phase 1 and 2,” he said. “Phase 3 proposes to add 1,500 acres south of Heckscher State Park. Phase 3 is in much deeper waters and suggests much larger commercial oystering.” O’Hara raises the East Coast oyster, known as the Blue Point oyster, getting his supply from the Town of Islip Hatchery.
“You buy by size,” he said. “A quarter-inch size is bigger than spat (tiny larvae that attach to a surface). I have 80 bottom traps that can hold 2,000 each, so I have about 250,000 on the farm. For me, I wanted a farm I can maintain myself. I was selling to six different places and then I said, ‘What am I doing?’ It’s a lot of labor.
“I waited until I was 60 to become a laborer,” he said to laughter. “But it’s a great experience. It’s amazing to be out there and see marine life.”
After the panel talk, people remained and gathered to ask questions of the panelists. “This was the best of all our programs,” said program chair Gene Murphy. “We had 130 come and had to add chairs.”