State Clamps Down On Illegal Clamming Operation

Attorney General Spitzer and state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner John Cahill today announced that a judge has ordered a Long Island shellfish company to cease harvesting shellfish from land it does not own in Peconic Bay.

The court order prohibits Aqua Culture Technologies of Mount Sinai, and a related company, Peconic Bay Oyster Corp, from dredging clams and other shellfish from 4,822 acres of underwater land the companies claimed they owned.

"Aquaculture is an industry with vast potential that the state encourages and promotes," said Spitzer. "But as in any dry-land agricultural enterprise, aquaculture entrepreneurs must own or lease the underwater lands they harvest and from whose bounty they profit."

DEC Commissioner Cahill said: "New York State is blessed with an abundant and productive shellfish resource that must be protected and conserved for future generations. We're pleased the judge has supported our position and we look forward to working with the Attorney General in the future to ensure that New York's's environmental laws are upheld."

State laws bar people from using power equipment to dredge clams unless they own or lease the land being harvested and hold a valid permit from DEC. Aqua Culture, which used power equipment to dredge thousands of clams per day from Peconic Bay, is embroiled in an ownership dispute over the lands from which it harvests shellfish.

The company claimed it purchased the underwater land in 1998 from a bankruptcy trustee who was liquidating the assets of the previous owner of the land, Long Island Oyster Farm, Inc. However, the trustee abandoned the land in 1997 and testified he had not sold it to Aqua Culture.Rather, the trustee had given Aqua Culture a "quitclaim deed" which simply granted any rights the estate might have had in the lands. Aqua Culture asked for the deed only to assist its efforts to buy the lands from Suffolk County or other owners.

Long Island Oyster Farms, Inc. had purchased grants for underwater lands in Peconic Bay that had been sold for oyster farming by Suffolk County between 1884 and 1915. The company harvested oysters and clams from those lands until 1985, when it moved its operations to underwater lands near Huntington, Long Island.

After an investigation, DEC charged Aqua Culture with illegally harvesting clams from lands it did not own. DEC charged that the company had obtained a 1999 permit by falsely claiming ownership of the underwater lands. DEC rejected the companies' year 2000 shell-fishing applications as incomplete because of insufficient proof of ownership.

After a two-day hearing, Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge James Gowan ruled on April 28 that Aqua Culture did not have title to the lands from which it was harvesting clams.

Aqua Culture has 30 days in which to file an appeal of Judge Gowan's decision.

The case was investigated by the DEC and referred for prosecution to the Attorney General's office where it was handled by Assistant Attorney General Gordon Johnson, Deputy Bureau Chief of the Environmental Protection Bureau and by Assistant Attorney General Andrew Gershon. DEC attorney Timothy Eidle and biologist Debra Barnes worked on the case for the DEC.