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County reviews lease program for commercial fishing

Peter Johnson is a Shelter Islander who leases 10 acres of land underwater more than 1,000 feet from the shoreline off Mashomack Preserve in Shelter Island Sound. He grows oysters and his landlord is Suffolk County.

Each week he launches his 18-foot skiff into Smith Cove and motors out to his underwater oyster cages marked by buoys. He checks his shellfish for predators like porgies and crabs who get into — or are born — in the cages and eat the seed oysters. He calls his operation the Sheltered Oyster Company.

Mr. Johnson was one of the more than 30 people who attended a public meeting at the Mashomack Preserve Manor House Monday afternoon. The meeting was a 10-year review of Suffolk County’s Aquaculture Lease Program.

The Town of Shelter Island, The Nature Conservancy and the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning hosted the gathering, with  County Chief Environmental Analyst DeWitt Davies and County Environmental Planner Susan Filipowich chairing the meeting.

The purpose of the session was to gather information from advisory groups, municipalities and oyster growers. The Island meeting is part of an information gathering effort for the five East End towns. The county is looking at changing cultivation zones and examining the possibility of seaweed cultivation, Mr. Davies said.

It was made clear that the county only controlled the Island’s outside waters. The Town of Shelter Island controls the bottoms in its creeks and harbors. The groups that the county seeks information from are the yacht clubs, the marinas and recreational and commercial fishermen.

There are currently eight leases on Shelter Island and the county will be foreclosing on those that are not being used.

It was explained that there is a big commitment involved for an individual to get set up in aquaculture, even on a limited basis. There are permits required from agencies like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then there’s the gear — cages, ropes, buoys and an appropriate boat.

“It’s an expensive business,” Mr. Davies said, adding that it’s a good opportunity for those who want to get into it. “But don’t expect to make a big profit,” although it’s a green and rewarding way to make a living.

When Councilman Jim Colligan asked if there were any plans by the county to increase the cultivation acreage, he was told that’s still on the table. The other town official at the meeting was Supervisor Gary Gerth.

Julia Romanchuk Weisenberg, who is running for a Town Board seat on the Republican line, asked if “triploid” or “diploid” oysters were being grown. She was told that mostly diploid are cultivated here. It was explained that triploid oysters grow much faster but do not reproduce.

In 2004 New York State gave 110,000 acres of underwater lands to Suffolk County to lease, and 29,000 acres are in the waters from Flanders to Orient and Montauk as a cultivation zone.

The meeting broke up into small groups and discussions followed. For more information on the county’s aquaculture lease program, contact Ms. Susan Filipowich, at (631) 853-4775 or email her at [email protected].

The next informational meeting will be in Riverhead on June 6.