Charles Mascialino, a transplant monitor with the Department of Environmental Conservation, watches over the waters of Raritan Bay off the coast of Staten Island.
ROBERT STOLARIK FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
By ANDY NEWMAN
JULY 5, 2007
The border skirmish is waged by shirtless men in small boats stabbing long rakes into the black muck of Raritan Bay, and by bureaucrats in Albany and Trenton. The prize is clams — littlenecks and cherrystones, meaty and healthy and once again plentiful enough to fight over.
After a bout with a parasite, the hard-shell clam is flourishing anew in Raritan Bay, the reach of leaden water that divides Staten Island from the north end of the Jersey Shore.
But its recovery has revived an age-old dispute between New York and New Jersey. In this round, 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.
“New Jersey’s encroaching on our land and not being supervised,” said Capt. Bill Cunningham, who, from a 42-foot trawler, monitors New York’s clammers 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, which 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 Capt. Joe Meyer of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s marine law enforcement bureau, “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 more than a month ago, four New Jersey clammers have been cited at sea and ordered to appear at the criminal courthouse on Targee Street in Staten Island to answer charges of clam poaching. Each faces a maximum fine 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 was begun in 1987 in which clams dug up in the fecund though fecally compromised 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 more than half the state’s 150,000-bushel harvest.
Then Q.P.X. hit. Q.P.X. — a protozoan formally known as Quahog Parasite Unknown — is harmless to humans but disables a clam’s water filter. Faced with mounting clam mortality, New York officials halted the transplant program in 2002 to prevent Q.P.X. from being spread to the waters of Little Peconic Bay, off Long Island. On the New Jersey side, clamming continued because New Jersey’s Raritan Bay clam fishery is self-contained — the state has depuration plants on the bay where clams can be flushed of fecal bacteria in two days.
Three years later, the Q.P.X. outbreak appeared to have mostly run its course; in 2005, New York reopened about a third of its 10,000 acres of Raritan Bay clamming beds. This year, it opened another 2,200 acres, including several sections near the New Jersey line, 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, they were working right next to us,” 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. “That’s how arrogant they are.”
On June 27, under the watchful eye of Captain Cunningham, the 11 New York clam boats on the breezeless water had their patch of bay to themselves, save for the hungry black flies. 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.
Digging clams is backbreaking, ab-sculpting work. The digger jerks the rake pole 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.
Captain Cunningham, a 55-year-old Coast Guard veteran, trained his binoculars on a suspicious cluster of becalmed motorboats 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 the pockets of his board shorts stuffed with summonses. Taking Shellfish in Uncertified Waters. Taking Shellfish for Commercial Purposes in New York State Without a Permit. Possession of Untagged Shellfish.
Mr. Lubaczewski, 26, said that drifting on open water, it can be tough to track one’s precise position. “Unless you have a really expensive, high-tech G.P.S. 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 legal 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 the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, 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 half of what they were in 2000, so many New York clammers let their permits lapse during their enforced hiatus that the dozen crews that remain — down from 80 — 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 summer. “By September,” Captain Cunningham said as he gazed at the spot where Mr. Lubaczewski had been, “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 reported, 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 New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell 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.”