Hard work isn’t enough, I owe you updates.
Since last August we have spent 68 days filming – all funded exclusively by your contributions, by the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association, by a few special people who prefer to remain anonymous, and by me.
To date this project has snuck me onto a heavily guarded police boat with Governor Cuomo, put me face to face with Town of Oyster Bay Commissioner Joseph Saladino, got me chased by a Nassau County Police Helicopter, harrassed by the Nassau County Marine Bureau, nearly frozen, nearly drowned, and completely covered in smelly Oyster seed muck. Oh, and let’s not forget the foot of snow in Montauk we just endured while filming new life spewing from the proud Moms and Dads of millions of shellfish starting their lives at the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery.
Yes all that happened, and much more, and yes it’s ALL on film safely stored and sorted on duplicate raid-arrays here in California – just to be safe.
Governor Cuomo, introducing the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Project – which excludes Oyster Bay Harbor
We filmed Governor Cuomo’s speech during the Restoration Project’s unveiling, which sounded beautifully in sync with nature. He spoke about sustainability, restoring and protecting our natural resources – just like our film does. But oddly, the very same Oyster Bay Harbor that was named after shellfish some 400 years ago (yet hasn’t successfully supported a naturally occurring oyster population in decades) was completely left out of the conversation – and the program, and the funding. I filmed Danielle Campbell of News 12 Long Island, a journalist who covers environmental stories, asking Cuomo about the illegal dredging in Oyster Bay Harbor. The answer she got was blunt, and quite frankly untrue. She was told they DO have permits. Yet just last week at a Town Bay Management meeting, a lead attorney at the Oyster Bay town attorney’s office, confirmed to it’s Councilwoman that the dredgers DO NOT have permits to dredge Oyster Bay Harbor. Paul confirmed that they have not had permits to dredge in Oyster Bay Harbor since 2007. Paul also confirmed that the dredgers do NOT have the Water Quality Certification that is required by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in order to dredge legally in Oyster Bay Harbor. ..and then Paul confirmed, again to Councilwoman Michele M. Johnson, that the dredgers knowingly misrepresented multiple aspects of their operations on their current permit application, which the New York State Department of State pushed through to the Army Corps of Engineers regardless. Thankfully Painter and Bob Wemyss, who were accompanied by the very powerful environmental law firm EarthJustice, met with Colonel Thomas D. Asbery of the Army Corps, and showed him many of the images that we have captured during the making of this Bay of Imbalance film. These images helped prove to the Colonel that the dredgers are intentionally misrepresenting themselves and their operations, which the Colonel is now well aware of. Still it’s a scary time for Oyster Bay Harbor because regardless of all the falsehoods, the dredger’s re-submitted permit is once again awaiting approval at the Army Corps of Engineers RIGHT NOW...
Out of sight, out of mind…
During our filming work last summer I got to spend time with people on both sides of the “Clam Wars” fight. People for the Baymen, and people against the Baymen. This was a little unsettling to me at first, to find that anyone but the dredgers are against the Baymen. But fortunately for me I understand that feeling “unsettled” often means I am learning. And that’s why I was there after all – to learn, and to film – so we can tell the whole story here, not just the Baymen’s story.
One fact I learned is a surprising number of long-standing locals to Oyster Bay Harbor have no idea what those dredge boats are, even though they see them daily. Some think they are Lobster boats, others think they are fishing boats. And then there are the people who accept what they have been told for decades – that the dredgers are “Saving the Bay”. That if it weren’t for the dredgers, there would be no Oysters or clams In Oyster Bay Harbor.
Well, there are no natural Oysters in Oyster Bay Harbor…
…Not anymore. The dredgers who harvest them plant them there artificially, and they harvest them before they can reproduce – because the young ones taste the best. The method the dredgers use to harvest these young planted oysters and clams is so devastating to the surrounding bay bottom, and to its water column, that most other sea life and plant life cannot survive there anymore.
Some of what we have learned during the making of this film is that the dredgers have essentially transformed what was once Oyster Bay Harbor’s naturally thriving environment, into what scientists call a “Monoculture“. This is essentially the same thing that some farmers do for their crops – they alter and control a specific environment to benefit ONE species of plant or animal, to the detriment of others. Scare Crows keep the birds away, pesticides keep the bees and bugs and worms away, and they continually grow and harvest that same crop over and over, year after year, decade after decade. The problem with this is obvious when you think about it – what happens to everything else? And what happens when everything else is gone? What happens to the environment and it’s delicate ecosystems when there are no plants on the bottom of the bay? What happens when the fish are gone, the crabs are gone, when the worms are gone..? The list of problems are endless.
An ecosystem is very much like the engine in your car – it is made up of many different parts all carefully arranged and working together like a machine. When you plow a hydraulic dredge through a delicate ecosystem you essentially blow that machine to bits. You scatter its parts all over the bay, and you disrupt the vital processes of nature which turn things like animal waste into usable nutrients. In Oyster Bay Harbor’s natural state those nutrients were slowly released back into the water column in what created a beautifully delicate balance of nature that plants and animals (including humans) benefited from. In Oyster Bay Harbor’s current state, hydraulic dredges constantly blow these nutrients and organisms up into the water column in such concentrated plumes that they throw all natural processes OUT OF BALANCE.
But from your car, from the beach, and even from a boat you cannot see the damage being done. So who cares, right? The truth is, you care. The Baymen care. I care. And the more people we can make aware of this, the less of chance dredging in Oyster Bay Harbor will have to continue. That’s why making this film matters.
Last November we sent a career scientific diver, Steve Resler, down to sample multiple locations on Oyster Bay Harbor’s bottom. We took the samples home and searched through piles and piles of dredged mud. He found ZERO LIFE in any bay bottom on or near the Town of Oyster Bay leased-for-dredging grounds. We believe the dredgers are well aware of this reality, but they don’t want you to be, which is likely why they sent the Police after us every time we dove (100% legally) anywhere near their leased bottom.
…which brings us to the helicopter chase.
Once the daily harassments ended, Painter asked one question, repeatedly, until he got an answer…
Painter: “So you stopped us and searched and inspected my boat and gave me a ticket for a rubbed-off sticker on my hull, in response to a 911 emergency call? So where’s the emergency?”
officer: “We are required to respond ‘to a 911 call’ and conduct an investigation.”
Painter: “Was this an emergency?”
Officer: “We are required to respond and conduct…”
Painter: “Are we doing anything wrong here?”
Officer: “We conducted an investigation of your vessel and you were in compliance of safety…”
Painter: “Was it right that they called you for a 911 emergency..?
Officer: “I don’t give out personal opinions..”
Painter: “Was this an emergency..?”
Painter: “Was, this, an emergency?”
Signs of life
It’s been eight years now that the Baymen have been running their oyster seed program. Their idea is and has been, to raise shellfish seedlings from tiny babies all the way to plantable shellfish – and then spread them around Oyster Bay Harbor in the hopes of spawning new populations of Oysters and Clams. The Baymen are not harvesting all the shellfish they grow. Their hope is to help the oysters overcome the current challenges for natural sea life in Oyster Bay Harbor, so that future generations will one day again be able to enjoy the harbor in as close to it’s natural state as it can be.
Film progress report:
it’s been three plus years we’ve been working on this film. If you told me three years ago what it would entail, or how much it would cost the Baymen, or Painter, or you and me personally, I think I might have jumped from the window of my first eastbound flight.
The Baymen had no idea what this story was three years ago, Painter had no idea, the lawyers who came onboard just a year ago had no idea. But we all knew what’s going on in Oyster Bay Harbor is wrong and needs to be changed. Common sense will tell you in just one of the many images we have captured that dredging is catastrophically harmful to the environment, to animals, and to plant life. But becoming a catalyst for change is not something you can achieve by simply feeling something, or knowing something in your heart. You’ve got to do the right work, the right way, with the right people. We have been blessed so far with some great people. We have accomplished more than anyone imagined we would need to. And we are so close, but we are not done. There are just two key points we need to get on film, still, which we are working on the logistics for now. And then the editing, the music, the narration and distribution. This will take time, which will take money, which we do not have yet. But good brings good, so we press onward and never surrender.
I hope to write another update in a few weeks. There is so much more to share here. So much more that we have learned, and tested, and filmed.
Thank you sincerely for your support. All of you.
Eric Gulbransen and the Baymen of Oyster Bay Harbor