Oyster fisheries granted leases despite public concern

Oyster fisheries won the battle with recreational boaters over leasing space in Suffolk County waters, despite heated comments at a recent hearing against the approval of any new aquaculture leases. 

The county Aquaculture Lease Board approved 21 new applications for 10-acre bay-bottom leases Monday night, although only nine finalists, to be chosen by random drawing Aug. 29, will end up getting a spot. Each applicant applied for three specific lease sites and, if selected, will be able to choose one of the three. The lease board staff gave applicants recommendations on what they considered the best choices.

The lease program rents underwater land in Peconic and Gardiners bays to people who grow shellfish. The area has seen a resurgence in oyster farming since the program was started a decade ago.

“I think we can all agree that there has been a renaissance with respect to oyster farming activity in Suffolk County,” Dewitt Davies of the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning said at the start of the meeting.

The Shelter Island Yacht Club objected in writing to nearly every one of the proposed lease sites in Gardiners Bay, saying floating gear and buoys associated with oyster cultivation could create navigational hazards. The Peconic Bay Sailing Association expressed similar concern about the dozen or so applications for sites within Southold waters.

“The staff recognizes and acknowledges the waters in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay are used for sailboat races, sailing instruction, boating, commercial fishing and other recreational activities,” county environmental planner Susan Filipowich said in the staff report. “Comments received during this lease cycle reflect different opinions on what actually constitutes a navigational hazard.

“It is the opinion of the staff that the approval of these sites will not create a navigational issue for mariners,” she added.

August Ruckdeschel, an Aquaculture Lease Board member, noted that determination of navigational hazards is made by the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers.

The applicants included Founders Oyster Farm, which wants to lease land under Southold Bay or Little Peconic Bay, and Greenport Oyster Company, which asked to lease bottom land in Gardiners Bay.

The board discussed the possibility that opponents of additional lease approvals might seek to overturn its decision by filing Article 78 suits against lessees. This has been done in the past, according to board member Dorian Dale, who urged that selected applicants consider this when deciding which plot they want.

The board also said its 10-year review of the lease program would begin in September. That review was planned when the program launched, officials said.

Greg Cukor of the Peconic Bay Sailing Association, the sole speaker during the public comment section, expressed support for the shellfishing community in Suffolk County, but warned of possible future dilemmas.

“I think all of our members and certainly I am interested in the preservation of the shellfish industry,” Mr. Cukor said. “It’s going to get crowded at some point and I think that really is the issue for the future.”

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