The centuries-old tradition of cultivating oysters in and around Shelter Island waters is surging back from near extinction.
Over the years, pollution, economic downturns and climate change have taken their toll, but oyster farming has come back strong of late. Its success, ironically, may have created a new challenge, as efforts to protect and expand aquaculture leases have clashed with the region’s marine recreation industry.
The Shelter Island Yacht Club (SIYC), according to Commodore Bryan J. Carey, has called for a moratorium on any new 10-acre leases of harbor and bay areas, specifically citing 2018 leases, until a current study of the 10-year leasing program is complete. That review, however, is expected to take up to three years.
In a letter to Suffolk County, SIYC asked that if a moratorium could not be enacted, the county would develop specifications on gear and buoy systems involved in aquaculture as a condition of the lease-approval process, including a restriction against floating gear and requiring the use of certain buoy systems to minimize navigation hazards. The development of new aquaculture technologies, according to the SIYC letter, requires greater scrutiny of the challenges floating gear could present.
County Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), who represents the Island, agreed. “In some places, the surface cages are not appropriate,” Ms. Fleming said. “There has to be a balance,” with the concerns of the boaters and sailors.
Ian Wile, owner of North Fork Oysters and an advocate for the aquaculture industry, said the aquaculture lease program gave him and many other oyster farmers in the area a chance to “make a new start after the 2008 global meltdown.”
While recognizing that the growth of the industry has created conflicts with recreational boating, Mr. Wile points out that the area proposed for possible leases is relatively small, with a cap on the number of sites that can be leased. At maximum, he said, only about 1,000 of 160,000 surface acres of the bay would be leased.
“This means that 99.4 percent of the bay remains clear for use by all stakeholders,” Mr. Wile said. “I respectfully ask: If .6 percent is in the way of SIYC member usage, for the roughly 48 days per year they use it, what would be an acceptable number? 99.9 percent? 100 percent?”
A proposed map, Mr. Wile said, has many exclusion zones, including all of Greenport Harbor, all navigational channels and broad exclusion along all valuable scallop grounds. While still in its infancy, the revived oyster industry is now employing hundreds directly and feeding year-round ancillary businesses, such as welding, boat sales, repair, transportation, tourism and food suppliers.
Recently, a proposal to extend the Suffolk County agricultural districts to over 100,000 underwater acres failed in the county Legislature’s Environmental Protection Committee. Backed by the Long Island Farm Bureau and the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, the expansion would have provided those involved in aquaculture the same legal protection the state gives upland farmers. For example, if farmers are using accepted agricultural methods, they could seek recovery of court costs, if lawsuits challenging their operations are found to be without merit.
This past week, however, Ms. Fleming succeeded in passing a more modest proposal, delineating only 25,000 bay acres to be included. This proposal will be incorporated into a plan that the county would submit to the state, pending further hearings.
“This will extend very limited protection to established farmers,” Ms. Fleming said. “Considering what challenging conditions they face to begin with, along with the benefits they provide to the quality of water, it’s a good idea to support oyster farmers.”
By reducing the area covered by the earlier proposal, she added, the proposal is trying “to balance with the needs of the marine industry. This is a really good common sense solution to the challenges of the moment.”
A hearing of the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Board is scheduled for Riverhead today, Monday, July 30. The board will consider 47 10-acre sites for oyster farm leases in underwater areas in Peconic, Napeague and Gardiners bays applied for in the 2018 cycle, as well as one 20-acre overlay for a private oyster grant owner and three relocations by an existing leaseholder. Public comments and testimony will be accepted.
On August 13, the Board will make its decision on the lease applications.
Ms. Fleming discussed the need to develop a lease approval process that would impose several criteria, just as land use zoning applications do. These include:
• What is the potential impact on surface waters?
• Is there a less intrusive alternative?
• Would navigational hazards result?
• How would they be mitigated?
She recommended that the 10-year review include all stakeholders to ensure there are no “unintended consequences.” For the oyster farmers, she said, “their margins are very narrow, they are at the mercy of the weather, they may spend their life savings to get the capital cost of their gear.”
On the other hand, she pointed out, the yacht clubs and marinas all need to be heard and have their concerns considered.
“For centuries we have had conflicting uses of the waters,” she said. “They can be worked out.”