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Legislature continues oyster program; restricts underwater acreage

For some folks on the East End of Long Island, speaking out against oyster farming is like opposing the adoption of rescue puppies. But at a series of public hearings before the Suffolk County Legislature this winter, yacht clubs, boaters and owners of waterfront property made their cases about restricting it.

On March 2, the Suffolk County Legislature approved the continuation of the county’s 10-year-old Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program (SCALP) with a boatload of amendments, including a 43% reduction in the underwater acreage that can be leased and new fees for farmers.

It had been a lengthy process to finally arrive at a resolution from the Legislature.

“We want the program to survive and thrive,” said Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac). “After two years of back and forth, we have found a balance of the interests. We want to make sure nobody walks away from this process saying we were given short shrift.”

Ms. Fleming, who represents Shelter Island, called it the sign of a good compromise that both sides were unhappy.

The boaters made the point that the above- and below-water gear employed by the farmers is a dangerous hazard to navigation, plus the wide reach of the county’s program takes away public waters for private enterprise.

SCALP was established to make it possible for small farmers to practice aquaculture on underwater land that is public property under a lease program administered by the county.

Although stakeholders for and against the changes say they are glad the program will continue, some boaters are still concerned about future navigational hazards from farms in the wrong places, and oyster growers and environmentalists fear the chilling effects of changes to a decade-long program with an unblemished record of safety.

Bert Waife grows his Eeltown oysters on land leased through the county program and sells them at his farmstand on Shelter Island and at Sylvester Manor.

The two-year review of the program was an anxious time, he said, especially for smaller aquaculture businesses like his. Mr. Waife said the SCALP changes will affect him since the lease fees for renewals and second leases will go up, and if he decides to apply for a second lease, he’ll be required to pay for the survey of the property. He hopes to grow his business to a million oysters in the next few years.

Dave Daly grew up sailing in the Southold Bay, the same waters where he now farms oysters. “It was frustrating to see oyster farms under attack from a small group of recreational sailors who do not want to share the bays,” Mr. Daly said.

Eight years ago, Mr. Daly and his partner Ben Gonzalez were looking to start a new business, something that would allow them to make a living on the North Fork they both love. They considered the wine business, but after taking the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s aquaculture course known as SPAT — where most of the oyster farmers on the North Fork are trained — they applied for the lease on a parcel of underwater property. 

An oyster farm requires seed (fingernail-sized oysters) land (underwater) to get started.  It takes a few years to grow an oyster big enough to sell, and as they grow they are aquatic vacuum cleaners; filtering an astonishing 50 gallons of bay water per oyster per day, enough to clean the entire water column of a farm site, removing nitrates from bay water more effectively than state-of-the-art sanitation systems.

When Stefanie Bassett and her partner Elizabeth Peeples decided to go into oyster farming, they initially thought they would farm in Rhode Island where aquaculture is a more common and accepted part of coastal living. But when an existing farm in Gardiners Bay near Shelter Island became available, they bought it, and now grow their Little Ram Oysters within sight of two Shelter Island beaches.

“We’re grateful to be in Southold, and we love living on the North Fork,” said Bassett. “We just didn’t expect to be in a state that was so far behind.”

The attack on the lease program was tough to take for the farmers, especially in a year that brought them reduced sales due to the pandemic, and a new baby, Finn.  “We love the water just as much as they do,” she  said about the boaters. ‘The attack is on us trying to make a living.”

Shelter Island Yacht Club Commodore Bruce Brewer said that he and most members of the club are very much in favor of oyster farming. Mr. Brewer said he’s an oyster farmer — though not for profit — in Menantic Creek. He received training from the county’s aquaculture program.

But floating gear is hazardous, he said, and is only seriously regulated, such as checking on markings and warnings, by the Coast Guard, which is seldom seen in local waters. “These steel crates are there day and night, Mr. Brewer said.

Until the 1950s, New York was the biggest oyster-growing state in the country, producing some of the finest oysters in the world. In 1950, 1.2 million bushels of oysters were taken from New York waters, but by 2012 the harvest was around 34,000 bushels.

The Long Island Sound Study conducted by the EPA with New York and Connecticut found that New York oyster landings increased in the first years of Suffolk County’s lease program, in part due to increased aquaculture production.

Most of the seed oysters used by local farmers are raised by Karen Rivara at the Peconic Land Trust’s Shellfisher Preserve, which gives her a good idea of the status of oyster farming in New York, especially relative to neighboring states. “My average order-per-grower in Rhode Island, New Jersey and Connecticut is a million seed oysters. In New York, it’s 200,000,”  Ms. Rivara said, adding that she worries that reductions to the leasing program will keep New York aquaculture from reaching its potential.

She knew of no boater or homeowner complaint about the SCALP program until 2019, when a yacht club in Amagansett sued the county for granting a lease to an oyster farm they felt was too close. The suit was later dropped, but representatives of the yacht club continued to speak against the program at the SCALP public hearings.

“It created this atmosphere of contention, and put a cloud over the 10-year review process,” said Rivara. “I don’t think you are going to see the number of new growers that you saw in the first 10 years. It was hard before, it’s even harder now.”

Julia Romanchuk is a Shelter Island-based employee of Peeko Oysters, one of a handful of local aquaculture operators who do not participate in the county lease system because they have rights to their own underwater property. She sees mainly benefits to oyster farming as a driver of local business.

“Oysters are getting into the plates of tourists who sustain our economy,” Ms. Romanchuk said. “It’s a practice that takes an enormous amount of financial investment, time and labor. It’s not for everybody, and loses many along the way.”

A recreational boater and an oyster farmer, Arthur Skelskie cultivates oysters off the dock in back of his waterfront home in Cutchogue. He’s seen an increase in buoys from oyster farms over the past decade.

“I understand why it’s become an issue. There hasn’t been anything that has ever challenged boaters’ primacy on the waters. People don’t like change, don’t like to think, ‘I’ve got to be careful, there’s an oyster farm ahead.’ Homeowners are nervous about a pristine view of the water,” he said. “But if people want sustainable seafood, there have to be accommodations.”