In Response to Lawsuit, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agrees to Reevaluate Industrial Shellfish Dredging in Long Island Wildlife Refuge


Service will begin process to ensure that industrial dredging does not conflict with wildlife protection, according to settlement agreement with traditional shellfish harvesters and conservationists


Nydia Gutiérrez,, (202) 302-7531

Amy van Saun,, (971) 271-7372 (office), (585) 747-0151 (cell)

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York approved an agreement binding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate whether industrial shellfish dredging in the Congressman Lester Wolff Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge conflicts with wildlife protection. The agreement follows a lawsuit filed in 2023 by the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association and the Center for Food Safety, both represented by Earthjustice, challenging the Service’s decades-long failure to prevent harm from industrial shellfish dredging.

The Refuge includes over 3,200 acres of underwater land located along the north shore of Long Island, near the Town of Oyster Bay in eastern Nassau County. It was established to protect migratory birds, fish, and other wildlife, and it supports iconic and protected species including bald eagles, osprey, shorebirds, and sea turtles. Historically, the Refuge provided important habitat for shellfish, yielding about 90% of New York State’s total oyster harvest and 40% of its hard clam harvest each year — but shellfish populations in the Refuge have suffered a sharp decline.

In February 2022, the Service refused to reevaluate the effects of industrial shellfish dredging in the Refuge as required by law — even though reevaluation is nearly two decades overdue and a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that industrial shellfish dredging damages aquatic habitat, degrades water quality, and harms birds, fish, and other wildlife. Today’s agreement reverses that refusal, committing the Service to act within two years to reevaluate the effects of industrial dredging. The Service will make a draft reevaluation available for public comment before finalizing its new decision.

“For nearly 40 years, I’ve used hand tools to harvest shellfish from waters in and around the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge, just as my great-grandfather did before me,” said Billy Painter, president of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association. “Over the years, I’ve noticed serious declines in shellfish populations, and I’ve seen many hand-harvesters move to different, more dangerous areas or give up shellfishing entirely. Together with the Baymen’s Association, I greatly appreciate the Service’s commitment to reconsider the ecosystem-wide effects of industrial shellfish dredging, and I hope that Service will exercise its authority to prevent further harm.”

Federal law requires the Service to ensure that the purposes of each National Wildlife Refuge are carried out. Accordingly, the Service may allow use of a refuge only if it first determines that the use is “compatible” with the refuge’s purposes. It must reevaluate ongoing uses at least once every 10 years — and more frequently if conditions change or new information becomes available. The Service may request modifications to an ongoing use to ensure that it remains compatible. In addition, the Service must issue special use permits to authorize commercial use of a refuge.

The Town of Oyster Bay has authority to allow shellfish harvesting in the Refuge, provided that it does not interfere with wildlife protection. Despite evidence that industrial shellfish dredging does, in fact, interfere with the protection of wildlife, the Town has allowed the use of hydraulic dredges, which deploy powerful water jets to loosen sediment and dislodge shellfish, and suction dredges, which operate like large vacuum cleaners, using a hose to suction up sand, shellfish, and other creatures from the seafloor.

Federal and state agencies, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, have expressed concern that industrial shellfish dredging damages habitat for fish and other species.

“Just like industrial agriculture harms our lands, industrial aquaculture is harmful to aquatic ecosystems and everyone who relies on them, including traditional harvesters. Fish and Wildlife Service must do its duty to protect this unique refuge for the benefit of all: humans and animals alike,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety. “We have seen what happens when the federal government fails to protect aquatic ecosystems from the proliferation of industrial shellfish farming in Washington State, and we are hoping FWS does not make the same mistake in New York.”

Industrial dredges damage habitat by scraping the seafloor, leaving lasting scars, and erasing complex natural structures used by fish and other species for shelter and nursery areas. Industrial dredges also damage habitat by disturbing sand, silt, and clay on the seafloor and dispersing these materials into the water column. Suspended sediment churned up by industrial dredges spreads beyond the site of original disturbance, sometimes travelling hundreds of meters away. As sediment re-settles, it changes the texture and composition of the seafloor, harming fish and shellfish, as well as birds and other species that rely on fish and shellfish for food.

According to a survey commissioned by the Town of Oyster Bay, clam abundance declined by 44% from 2013 to 2018, and clams now are present at fewer locations included in the survey area.

“The Congressman Lester Wolff Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge is beloved by New Yorkers and visited by iconic wildlife species including bald eagles, osprey, and sea turtles,” said Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman. “We’re pleased that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to carrying out its long-overdue obligations to protect this special place, and together with our partners, we look forward to ensuring that the Service conducts a thorough and careful reevaluation, which will help to preserve the Refuge for future generations.”

Oyster Bay, NY
An industrial shellfish dredge boat with a trailing plume of churned-up sediment in Oyster Bay Harbor, which includes portions of the Congressman Lester Wolff Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge. (Eric Gulbransen / North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association)

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