The Old Man and the Bay

Scientists want to bring shellfish back to Barnegat Bay. But can they bring back the baymen?

Fred Kalm sits in his garvey and watches.

On this cold, gray morning, the 75-year-old balances effortlessly in the flat-bottomed boat, looking for signs. He’s hoping that the clams are back and he perks up at the sound of two boats heading into the choppy water where Barnegat Bay meets the Mullica River. Neither boater is a clammer.

Kalm isn’t a chatty sort, but he’d hoped to swap a story or two with a kindred old salt. He can’t help but reminisce about the days when there were as many clams as there were men with tongs.

“It’s nice to hear them laughing gulls,” Kalm says between strained breaths, scraping his tongs for hours along the rocky bay bottom. Kalm is one of the few remaining baymen in South Jersey, one of a self-sufficient breed who harvest shellfish, for generations an economic staple of New Jersey and New York.

Gef Flimlin, a marine extension agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Ocean County, doesn’t think he can bring back the baymen, but he is trying to bring back the clams.

The afternoon sky clears and the temperature warms by the time Flimlin dons a wetsuit and, with the help of volunteers, retrieves mesh bags containing about 120,000 baby clams off the coast of Waretown in Barnegat Bay, several miles north of the spot where Kalm works.

“Hey Gef,” yells volunteer Ed Frankovich from the beach. He signals: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Flimlin and Gustavo Calvo, principal fisheries biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, lift the bags into a boat.
“We got ’em all,” Flimlin shouts back.
“Clam chowder tonight!” Frankovich replies.

Flimlin is co-director of the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program, an ambitious, volunteer-driven effort to bring shellfish back to the once-fertile body of water that hugs roughly 35 miles of Ocean County coastline, and the 75-square-mile bay from Bay Head in the north to the southern tip of Long Beach Island.

Heartened as he is by reports of the hopes for repopulating the bay, Kalm is concerned with the present and can’t help thinking about the past. Two commercial crabbers wave as they pass Kalm in the morning. No one else sails within sight. Sometimes, Kalm admits, the solitude gets to him. “Sometimes when we were clamming with each other there’d be some camaraderie, but it’s nothing like it used to be,” he says. “I wish I had a picture of that, with all those boats here together. Sometimes I get to thinking of them.”

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the clam population of Barnegat Bay was nearly wiped out. Oysters have been largely absent from the bay for about 100 years, Flimlin says. The phenomenon was not restricted to Barnegat Bay. Great South Bay in New York also suffered. The debate rages today over the causes, but Flimlin points to overdevelopment, fertilizer runoff, pressure-treated lumber, and other culprits. For people like Kalm, it doesn’t matter how it happened.

“We were stunned,” says Kalm, adding that the oysters “just buried themselves up and died.”

Many baymen grudgingly chose another trade or went to work in a business offering health benefits and a pension plan. Flimlin says that New Jersey has lost 900 full-time clammers in the last 20 years. Kalm stopped clamming off Little Egg Harbor and moved south to Great Bay, where he continues to tong clams for six hours a day, six days a week, weather permitting.

Captain Bob Lauer, a lifelong Barnegat Township resident and assistant manager for Captain Brownie’s Seafood in Barnegat, says he knows two or three full-time clammers who work near Kalm around Great Bay. The youngest is 55 and the oldest is nearly 90. “I’ve been here all my life and watched it all go downhill,” Lauer says.

Lauer, and others, blame the Oyster Creek Generating Station in nearby Lacey Township, the oldest nuclear plant in the nation, for the depletion of clams in Barnegat Bay. Exelon, the corporation that owns the plant, is currently seeking a twenty-year license renewal from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue operating after its current license expires in 2009. It also contributed $15,000 to the restoration program in 2005. Other funding came from the Ocean County Freeholders, the Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program, and private donors.

Exelon spokeswoman Rachelle Benson says the plant does everything it can to protect the bay. “We don’t believe our operation has had any effect on the shellfish,” Benson says. “On a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis, we monitor water temperatures and regularly take water samples to ensure compliance with regulations. Also, we coordinate any planned load reductions or shutdowns to avoid any risk to marine life.”

In a draft environmental-impact statement released in June, NRC representatives wrote that Oyster Creek had little impact on Barnegat Bay marine life that would preclude its license renewal. At a public hearing in July, Michael Kennish, a Rutgers University marine-science professor, blasted that report because it compared current fish kill data with similar data from the 1970s. Officials from the NRC said that was the most recent data they could compare it to; they also said they supplemented their research with academic journal articles on the bay, fishery data, and anecdotes from fisherman, according to published news reports. Numerous environmental groups also reject the report. The state Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Representative Jim Saxton, and state Senator Leonard Connors, who is also mayor of Surf City on Long Beach Island, have repeatedly expressed concerns about the renewal of Oyster Creek’s license.

Kalm grew up in Tuckerton and learned tonging from his father, Otto, a German immigrant. Kalm still uses the garvey his father built in 1968. But he also carries a cell phone and a marine radio. In his youth, he was a talented pitcher and was signed by the Detroit Tigers. That was before he joined the Navy in 1950, at the outset of the Korean War. By the time he got out, he was too old for baseball, so he went back to the bay. In 1957, he began running a charter boat out of the Beach Haven Yacht Club during the summer, which he continued to do for the next 40 years. He also worked seasonally at cranberry bogs, but he can’t see himself anywhere but in his garvey. “It’s tough, you know, when you’ve been your own boss for so long,” he says.

In recent years, Kalm has been demonstrating clam tonging at the Tuckerton Seaport Museum, which lionizes the disappearing baymen culture. But tonging is Kalm’s main source of income, earning him about $80 a day.

The restoration program began in August 2005 when about twenty volunteers, under the direction of Flimlin and program co-director Cara Muscio, nursed 600,000 baby clams in two upweller systems on Long Beach Island. The systems pumped 60 gallons of bay water per minute into the upwellers, which housed the clams in plastic silos like a protective aquatic nursery. Two months later volunteers put the clams in mesh bags and placed them in four locations in the bay, from Waretown to Little Egg Harbor Township. During winter, the clams slow down their metabolism and lived off their reserves of stored glycogen, a form of sugar.

Last May, volunteers began retrieving the clams. Heavy siltation of the mesh bags, along with crab damage, destroyed nearly 90 percent of 125,000 clams planted near an island in the bay. Only about 10 percent of the Waretown batch survived the crabs, the turbulent water, and the elements.

Flimlin has recruited more volunteers for next year’s effort. Twice the number of clams—1.2 million—have been planted. And, for the first time in the program, oysters—100,000 of them—have been planted. In September, Flimlin said the clams showed a mortality rate of one-tenth of 1 percent. Flimlin says volunteers will monitor the screens more frequently to avoid the disastrous effects on the 2005 batch. Next October, they will harvest the clams and place them in the bay near Island Beach State Park until they reach legal size. Oysters thrive near reefs and prefer a shell-laden or hard bay bottom; they could be planted near the mouth of Toms River.

Flimlin is also pushing a campaign similar to Chicago’s “Cows on Parade,” public art projects where businesses and individuals in Ocean County can put up $3,500 to sponsor the clam sculptures and plop them on their property to generate some buzz about the program. Then, next September, the plan is for the clams to be auctioned off at the annual Chowderfest weekend (normally held on LBI), with the proceeds going to ReClam the Bay, a non-profit fundraising committee. “We’re trying to refocus people’s attention [on] the health of the estuary and its watershed,” Flimlin says.

Tonging has not changed in 100 years, Kalm says. Kalm’s tools are mahogany shafts tipped with copper and steel teeth that scrape clams from the bay floor. He has three sets—eleven, twelve, and thirteen feet long. In a scissoring motion, he pulls the shafts together at his chest, dragging the steel teeth along the bay bottom. When he pulls the tongs up, he picks the few clams out, dumping overboard any old oyster shells. Then he puts the clams onto the garvey’s gunwale and sells them for around eighteen cents each to Parson’s Seafood, a 76-year-old store in Tuckerton.

Tonging requires extraordinary strength in shoulder, wrist, and forearm. Kalm has the build of a lucky man half his age; his thick, powerful hands are perfect for his vocation but it takes great concentration for him to successfully punch in the digits on the tiny cell phone keypad when he checks in with his wife, Grace, during the day.

Flimlin says he is confident that if he can get funding, science can restore shellfish to Barnegat Bay. Kalm is cautiously optimistic that science might succeed in restoring shellfish to ’50s-era levels. He dreams that if his back holds out, he might last long enough to see a few colleagues rejoin him out on the bay.

“If something was to happen out here and it was good again, there’d be a bunch of clammers,” Kalm says. “I know that.”

Kalm leans on his tongs for a moment and looks out over the bay, pondering the possibility. No one is there to dispute his words.

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