Featured Story

The oyster is their world

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Corky Diefendorf at his West Neck Creek aquaculture operation.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Corky Diefendorf at his West Neck Creek aquaculture operation.

Last Friday, Islander Kerry Kinney was picking up a new batch of “spat” — tiny oyster seeds — from Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE)’s waterfront site in Southold. She was taking the spat back to introduce them to Congdon Creek, where she will continue to cultivate them.

Ms. Kinney has been part of SPAT, or Southold Project in Aquaculture Training, which equips novice farmers to raise oysters, for three years. “It’s really great,” she said, despite the work that goes into their cultivation. “Yes, you do have to take them up and scrub them, spray them and count them, then put them back in.”

Oysters are as integral to Shelter Island’s history and culture as the agricultural tradition being revived at Sylvester Manor. Thanks to many helping hands, the shellfish are thriving in new beds in Island waters. “Conditions this year,” said Kim Tetreault, community aquaculture specialist with CCE, “are awesome.”

On Friday morning, Mr. Tetreault and a dozen volunteers and oyster growers worked at the SPAT site, cleaning, sorting and poring over the young oysters to encourage their development. Dave Mahnken, a former Manhattan chef who grows them as a hobby, was rolling each shell to break the thin lips off the edges. “It makes the shell grow deeper,” he explained.

Another SPAT participant, Peter Munson, said after this season he and his wife Zibby would be winding down their efforts at their Menantic Creek home, where they typically harvested 400 to 500 oysters a year. A key to growing the bivalves is flipping the cages at least once a week, to keep muck from collecting. “At our age, pulling cages out of the water is backbreaking work,” he said. Fortunately, new growers are wading into the program each year to carry on their work.

To participate in the SPAT program, growers need to obtain a permit from the New York State Department of Conservation, which costs about $10; be in certified waters; and have a point of attachment to a bulkhead or dock.

SPAT provides equipment, weekly lectures and support along with a supply of spat to get started. Those who wish to participate in the program make a commitment that the operation will be non-commercial. Farmers can consume what they harvest, share with neighbors or just leave them to continue growing.

Armand DeLuca, who handed out fresh supplies of spat on Friday, took on the role of volunteer at the SPAT program 18 years ago and now spends three days a week at the Southold site year-round. He explained that SPAT is now participating in an important new CCE initiative that received a $5.25 million New York state grant in late 2017 to grow 65 million clams and 35 million oysters in various locations around Long Island.

“SPAT operates Floating Upwelling Systems (FLUPSYs) to support this program,” he said.

Filled with shellfish, a pump at the top pulls water up through a mesh bottom, bringing algae up to feed the shellfish. CCE, under the direction of Marine Program Director Chris Pickerell, is charged with identifying and managing nursery sites for deployment of approximately 73 of these FLUPSYs, growing out shellfish to optimal size for planting in sanctuary sites and planting shellfish at five designated sanctuary sites. Marinas throughout Nassau and Suffolk County are also participating by hosting some of these floating nurseries.

What is happening on a small scale in Shelter Island waters, one grower at a time, is being multiplied many times over with considerable impact foreseen throughout Long Island. “It’s incredibly important,” Mr. DeLuca said, “because water quality is more and more an issue out here. Peconic Bay is becoming more acidic. The shellfish will make a big difference because they filter out the impurities.”

Oysters are powerful cleaners of their surrounding waters. According to the Ocean Conservancy, an adult oyster can filter 25 to 50 gallons of water a day.

The ability of oysters to clean their habitat was the impetus behind the “Billion Oyster Project” created a few years ago in New York Harbor. The plan to restore oysters and reefs will, over time, restore the local marine ecosystem’s natural mechanisms for maintaining itself, resulting in cleaner water and greater biodiversity. The program involves community oyster reefs, in-school courses, scientific research and restaurant shell collection.

As of last year, over 26 million oysters had been planted, with more than 8,000 students and 1,000 volunteers engaged.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has put new programs in place to improve regional waters by reducing nitrogen from fertilizer runoff and antiquated septic systems, which pollute ground and surface waters. Also, the county’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan was updated not long ago to include, for the first time, aquaculture.

One program emerging from the plan gave oyster farmers opportunities for 10-acre leases for $250 a year.

Farmers who try to make it commercially will encounter the same challenges as the volunteer growers, not to mention conflicts with the other stakeholders in waters such as Peconic and Gardiners bays. As reported here last week (“S.I. Yacht Club and aquafarmers at odds,” July 26), the Shelter Island Yacht Club is calling for a moratorium on new aquaculture leases, citing concerns about floating equipment and potential hazards to navigation.

Suffolk County’s Aquaculture Lease program held a hearing on the 2018 leases this week and will deliver its decision on August 13.

Veteran Island shellfish farmer Corky Diefendorf said anyone growing oysters should know that it involves hard work, plus previous Island harvests were disappointing as a result of poor water quality. “The biggest problem here the last few years has been the rust tide,” he said, speaking of his oyster farm in West Neck Creek. “In previous years, the young ones couldn’t stand it,” he added.

Fortunately, he said, this year’s a different story: “How’s it going? Really well!”

Mr. Diefendorf credits more conscientious practices around septic systems and fertilizer runoff for the turnaround.

“When I was involved with Mashomack and chaired the Peconic Estuary Committee,” he said, “and the rust tide first came out, I took my colleagues out to Miss Annie’s Creek in Mashomack. Although the water doesn’t flow well there and it was warm, there was no rust tide, although there was in other waters around the Island.”

The difference, he pointed out, was that there were no houses there, supporting the idea that septic systems were a culprit in creating the tide.

If you’re not lucky enough to be a grower or live next to one, you can enjoy this taste of the sea at local restaurants, raw or roasted. You can also pick up fresh, ice-cold Peeko oysters harvested off Jessups Point from Chris Coyne on Route 114 in the Center and bring them home to enjoy.

To help novice shuckers, Coastal Cottage on Grand Avenue sells an oyster opener – especially designed for beginners – for $17.50 — so you can savor this taste of the sea on a half-shell quickly and safely in the comfort of your own Island home, one dozen at a time.