The building for Stony Brook University’s Flax Pond Marine Laboratory. New York State has given the university $4 million to build a new hatchery there. BRIANNE LEDDA/THE STATESMAN

As part of New York State’s 2020 Executive Budget, Stony Brook University will receive $4 million to build a new hatchery at its Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in East Setauket.

The hatchery will be used to grow 25 million, 15-millimeter-wide hard-shell clams per year. The goal is to eventually transplant the shellfish around Long Island, where they’ll clean the water and possibly populate the area.

Clams are filter feeders — they eat bacteria and phytoplankton, or microscopic algae, and their tissues tend to absorb toxins while they’re filtering the water, according to LiveScience. Once they reach 15 millimeters, the clams — owned by New York State — could be distributed to other state-owned bodies of water.

“[Flax Pond] never really reached its full potential until recently, when Governor [Andrew] Cuomo found some money to build the lab up, and see if we can regenerate some of the declining fisheries in New York State,” Malcolm Bowman, a distinguished service professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), said. “So I think it’s important that right next to a major university that has a big school in marine and atmospheric sciences that we can finally take advantage of this free lab and build a nursery associated with it.”

At his recent visit to Stony Brook on Thursday, April 11, Gov. Cuomo said the project would help to “[clean] up the water naturally, putting the clams and the mussels back, which were Mother Nature’s filtration mechanism before we got involved.”

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During a presentation hosted by Friends of Flax Pond in March, Larry Swanson, the associate dean at SoMAS, said that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) also applied for a million dollar grant from the Long Island Sound Study to reconfigure the inlet to Flax Pond and to repair its jetties. The reconfiguration is meant to clear out a buildup of sand and silt, which is expected to improve shellfish productivity and eliminate sediment accumulation at the entrance to the pond.

Swanson said that right now the pond is struggling.

“We’re losing marsh grass in here, and that’s extremely important, so I’m hoping that this will reinvigorate not only clams and such in the pond, but the entire ecological functioning of the pond,” he said.

Marsh grass captures carbon and takes it out of the ocean. Maintaining a healthy ecosystem and thus healthy marsh grasses at Flax Pond will help reduce ocean acidification to some extent, Swanson said.

The hatchery will be the first major structural improvement made to the Flax Pond lab since it was built in 1969. Part of the project involves adding salt water conduits, which will bring in higher quality seawater to the laboratory.

“We have not had easy access to good clean water to grow in the pond for as long as I could remember,” Swanson said. “It has held back research. It’s caused researchers to go from here, to the University of Connecticut. It’s caused some of our researchers to go out to Southampton when they shouldn’t have had to. So this is something that will really benefit the university and our ability to do top-notch research in the Flax Pond facility.”

About 16 floating upwelling systems, or FLUPSYs, will be built and anchored in Flax Pond. FLUPSYs are used to grow shellfish in open water while protecting them from predation until they’re large enough to survive on their own, according to the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Project. The FLUPSYs are also expected to reduce predation. One FLUPSY, Swanson said during the presentation, should produce about 750,000 clams between June and October. The 16 combined will produce 12 million during that time period.

The state is currently negotiating with a potential contractor for building modifications and hatchery construction is expected to begin this month. There is no money allocated for operational costs.

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