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Column: Oyster growers face a new challenge

For some people on the East End, 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 did just that. 

On March 2, the Suffolk County Legislature approved the continuation of the county’s 10-year-old aquaculture lease program (known as SCALP) with a boatload of amendments, including a 43% reduction in the underwater acreage that can be leased and new fees for growers. Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Southampton) called it a good compromise that both sides were unhappy.

SCALP allows small aquaculture growers to lease public underwater land under a 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 markers for underwater farms, such as buoys, and oyster growers and environmentalists fear the chilling effects of changes to a 10-year old program with an unblemished record of safety.

At public hearings in December and February this year, Matt Ketcham, owner of Peconic Gold Oysters, spoke in defense of the program that helped him establish his farm. “If you say you support aquaculture but you’re opposed to buoys, opposed to gear? Well, you are not a supporter.”

Mr. Ketcham has a growing oyster farm and a growing family. Already an experienced bayman when he started Peconic Gold Oysters on county-leased bay bottom in 2013, he built it from a one-man operation into a business of 1 million oysters annually with several employees. In 2020 the pandemic limited his restaurant business, but he said increased farm stand sales and shucking events made up for it. The birth of his son has him thinking of the future. “Maybe one day he’ll have the option of taking this business over,” Mr. Ketcham said.

Boat owners, however, say the markers that go with underwater farming do pose a hazard. 

Commodore Lisa Reich said on behalf of 300 members of the Shelter Island Yacht club that although some lease sites had been removed from the program, it was not enough. 

“Our concerns are not being taken seriously,” she said. “Floating gear creates navigational conflicts, and so much potential for damage.” 

And although she voiced support for the oyster aquaculture program, Mary Dorman of Orient said, “The oyster farms do present a navigational hazard. Both sides should work together to decide where the farms should be and what gear can be utilized.”

Dave Daly grew up sailing in 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,” he 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 Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training, known as SPAT — through which most North Fork oyster farmers were trained — they applied for a lease on a parcel of underwater property.

An oyster farm requires seed (fingernail-sized oysters) and underwater bay bottom to get started. It takes a few years to grow an oyster big enough to sell, and as they grow they are aquatic Roombas, filtering 50 gallons of bay water per oyster per day, enough to clean the entire water column of a farm site and 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 are grateful to be in Southold, and we love living on the North Fork,” said Ms. Bassett. “We just didn’t expect to be a state that was so far behind.”

The attack on the lease program was tough to take, 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. The attack is on us trying to make a living,” she 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 federal Environmental Protection Agency 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.

Since Karen Rivara at the Peconic Land Trust’s Shellfisher Preserve raises most of the seed oysters used by local growers, she knows the status of oyster farming in New York 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 200,0000.” Ms. Rivara 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 SCALP public hearings.

“It created this atmosphere of contention, put a cloud over the 10-year review process,” said Ms. 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.”

Arthur Skelskie is both a recreational boater and oyster farmer, who got his training in the SPAT program and cultivates oysters off the dock in back of his waterfront home in Cut-ch-ogue. He’s seen an increase in buoys from oyster farms over the past decade.

“I understand why it has become an issue,” he said. “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, but if people want sustainable seafood there have to be accommodations.”