Clean Water, Piscatorial and Bivalvular Rights, and Sunbathing Nuns
My earliest memories include a clear recollection of the waters off Staten Island’s south shore being clean enough for swimming – Midland Beach, Great Kills, Wolf’s Pond Park, Arbutus Beach, which was my favorite because of the odd name (I had no idea that trailing arbutus was a local wildflower) and because next to it, screened by a wooden fence, was a private beach that my mother told us was for nuns. Nuns went to the beach!? Did they sit on beach chairs in their black habits? Did they wear outlandishly old-fashioned bathing suits out of modesty? I remember the beach and I remember the fence but I never got a look over or under it, and so whatever was happening remained a mystery.
One of my other early memories is of the water on the south shore suddenly becoming polluted, swimming being banned, and the beaches – many of them, anyway – shutting down. Thus did they resemble the waters of the Kill Van Kull on the north shore, which when I was a kid were dark and oily, sloshing in and around crumbling docks and piers and bulkheads.
Almost nothing changed over the years, particularly not my perception of the quality of
The Great Kills Shellfish Corporation was in fact a depuration plant – a word I had never heard before – on the shore of Great Kills Harbor, A depuration plant is basically an indoor purification system for clams that have been harvested from waters that are too polluted to be safe to eat, a description that still applied all-too-well to the waters of Staten Island’s south shore. The Great Kills Shellfish Company would take clams from
Curry and Ryan told me that clamming had been banned from Staten Island’s waters for 18 years – or since 1963, which is roughly when I remembered the beaches being closed – allowing the clam beds to revive and the clams in them to fatten. They told me that to sell clams you separate them into four sizes, measured at their thickest part, from top to bottom, which I took to mean from hinge to lip: Little Necks, 1 7/16-inches wide; cherrystones, 1 ½ to 1 ¾ inches; top necks, an inch and a half, and chowders (which in New England are called quahogs) bigger than an inch and three-quarters (writing this now from notes taken then, I can see that the size categories don’t necessarily make sense, because of the overlap, so who knows if it’s right).
Almost nobody else was trying to sell clams from Raritan Bay in those days, and to Curry and Ryan, each clam – each specimen of Mercenaria mercenaria – was like a fattened dollar, sitting and bubbling in the water, waiting for some enterprising person to harvest it and depurate it.
For lunch we went next door to a place called the Café Marina. We sat for an hour. I had six clams (an absurdly restrained number, it seems in retrospect), a chef’s salad and two Heinekens. I’m not sure what Curry or Ryan ate, but Curry had a modest glass of wine with his lunch. It was Ryan’s performance though that knocked me out. Before lunch, he drank a
I never heard of the Great Kills Shellfish Company again and I don’t know if Betty Connelly was able to come through with whatever they needed from
But apparently clammers working off Great Kills now are coming up anything but empty, which is good news. The Times reports this morning that the clamming is good enough to be causing conflicts between the boys from Jersey and the boys from
Ryan is only 25 and I have no idea if he’s related to Bill Ryan – it’s not an uncommon name, and I myself have
The Times, by the way, reports that conflicts among shellfishermen in
So the waters off Great Kills and the south