If you’re a New Yorker, and you like oysters, clams and scallops the freshest you can get come from the waters around Long Island. These shellfish pump water through their bodies to breathe and eat. And if you eat them, you also get any toxins that stay behind. That’s why shellfishing is monitored by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It tests water quality–and forbids shellfishing if the water’s not clean enough. But lately, the agency’s been falling behind — enough so that the Federal Food and Drug Administration is taking notice. And people who make a living with shellfish are worried.
John Light reports.
JOHN LIGHT, REPORTER
Vincent Dimino has been selling fish in New York for 53 years. He’s built quite a business, buying fish from all over the country, and then prepping them for sale in his market in midtown.
SOUND: FISH BEING GUTTED ON “PREPPING,” ICE BEING SPREAD ON “MARKET”
He says he can tell when the Department of Environmental Conservation is going to cut off shellfish harvesting.
Regulations are if there is more than one inch of rain at one time, they close everything down for twenty-four hours. Two inches, forty eight hours, and so on.
A rainy day on Long Island means no local shellfish in New York, because rainwater runoff is one of many sources of contamination.
SOUND: DEC PHONE RECORDING OF SHELLFISHING ADVISORIES
“YOU HAVE REACHED THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION EMERGENCY SHELLFISH CLOSURE INFO MESSAGE LINE. EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY MAY 4 2012…” FADE UNDER
The DEC updates this message every day.
“ARE CLOSED TO THE HARVEST OF SHELLFISH AND CARNIVOROUS GASTROPODS”…FADE UNDER AND OUT
Still, this past winter the Food and Drug Administration reported that New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is dangerously short-staffed. The FDA called the department “highly dependent on borrowing staff and resources from other programs.” No one at the DEC could give an interview on tape,
but a spokeswoman provided a statement through email. In it, she wrote that one of two vacancies on Long Island had been filled in May of last year. And the agency “feels that we are adequately staffed at this time.”
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A lot of people just want the DEC to do it s job.
SOUND OF MIKE TALKING
Mike Osinsky is an oyster farmer in Green Port, Long Island. He delivers oysters to restaurants all over Manhattan — about a ton a week, he says. He raises the oysters on his property, and sorts them for sale using this machine. On a recent morning, it’s misty and cold, so a wood burning stove is heating Osinsky’s bayside home.
He’s worried about the chilly weather stunting his oyster crop. But his immediate worry is that the DEC will close his bay because of a dangerous algae that’s spreading.
I’m a little concerned right now because Sag Harbor’s closed, Shinnecock Bay is closed, Mannatuck Inlet in closed.
Osinsky business is relatively new — he’s only been at it for nine years. Before then, he was a software programmer on Wall Street. He says last year was his biggest — that’s when he hit a ton a week.
Which is for me sort of a threshold, I’m going to pour some more money into this, I’m going to build a hatchery. If I’m doing a ton and I’m turning away business like crazy, I might as well do ten tons.
Osinsky says he would like to build an oyster hatchery. But Osinsky says the Department of Environmental Conservation has yet to approve his oyster hatchery location, and he’s been waiting for over a year.
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Seafood is more highly regulated than anything except medicine, says Roger Tollefson, who is head of the New York Seafood Council. The council works with fisherman and wholesalers to promote New York seafood. Tollefson also trains shellfishermen in state and federal regulations — and, specifically, about how the DEC works.
In the past, when money has been tight, they’ve looked to cut things. And in the past it’s been threatened that they would no longer test for the harvest areas in New York State.
But Tollefson says an interstate trade regulation stipulates that the Department of Environmental Conservation, and no one else, test the waters.
If the DEC were to stop testing these samples in a timely manner, it would shut down an industry.
Shellfishing on Long Island is fading, despite the modest success of boutique shellfish farmers like Mike Osinsky. And a shutdown would mean no local shellfish for businesses that have come to rely on it —
They include Vince Dimino’s fish market, and Camaje, a restaurant in Manhattan, near Washington Square Park.
It’s late afternoon, and Camaje owner and chef Abby Hitchcock is getting ready for the dinner shift.
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She says shellfish dishes, like scallops, are some of her most popular.
They seem decadent and delicious and they’re something people mess up a lot when they cook at home, or they’re afraid they’re going to. And so it seems like kind of a cool restaurant thing to order.
Restaurants like Camaje depend on wholesalers, like Vince Dimino. And he could always buy more shellfish from further away — like Canada or the Gulf of Mexico. But New York Seafood Council’s Roger Tollefson says that would be a shame.
I think one of the benefits and beauties of living in this area is that we can buy local. And the consumer should really always demand local products whenever they can get them. But they shouldn’t be excluded from it because we can’t afford to test the waters.
Tollefson plans to continue training shellfishermen to work with the Department of Environmental Conservation. The Food and Drug Administration will reevaluate some of the DEC’s Long Island units
later this year.
John Light, Columbia Radio News.