Community shellfish gardeners have been growing oysters alongside the Tiana Recreation Center on the Shinnecock Bay side of Dune Road in Hampton Bays for several years, but the program is likely to get a boost this year with the Southampton Town Board’s support for a new “Tiana Bayside Marine Education and Outreach Center” there.
Members of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s marine program pitched the project to the Southampton Town Board at their May 19 work session at the urging of Town Councilman John Bouvier, who is a participant in the oyster garden program at Tiana.
Mr. Bouvier said the public interest in the program, which draws on the skills that are part of the East End’s heritage, has been overwhelming.
“Everybody almost stops us from working because they’re so intrigued about what’s going on there,” he said.
The shellfish garden currently at Tiana, with about 55 participants, is offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Southold Project in Aquaculture Training (SPAT) with the help of Southampton Town’s recreation department, which helps to register participants.
But the gardeners aren’t yet making use of an old police barracks at the site, a town-owned building that is currently vacant although the restrooms there are open to the public.
Scientists from CCE’s marine program said they’d like to put a marine touch tank, a classroom and a laboratory in the building, and would like to offer lectures and community seminars on projects ranging from SPAT to shoreline and underwater ecosystem restoration.
“I have way too many volunteers,” said SPAT program director Kim Tetrault, who added that employees can’t find a parking space at CCE’s Southold marine center when SPAT volunteers take over the campus on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. “We can turn work that we want to get done in town into educational events all the time.”
Most aquaculture programs involve a hatchery, where shellfish are spawned and the tiniest larvae are fed until they reaches a size where they can live in ambient water conditions, and a nursery, in the surrounding waterways, where the shellfish grow to their adult size.
Mr. Tetrault said he doesn’t believe SPAT should run a hatchery at Tiana Bay right now, due to the constant maintenance required at such an early stage in shellfish lives. But he said he has plenty of shellfish grown in other hatcheries that can be transferred to the nursery at Tiana.
“I’ve seen places go bankrupt trying to make a shellfish hatchery,” he said.
He’d like to offer a popular lecture series he currently runs in Southold at Tiana as well.
Town Board members enthusiastically supported the proposal — while scientists from CCE estimated they’d need $25,000 to renovate the building and replace its roof and then another $30,000 to $35,000 to begin programming there, Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the town may be able to make as much as $120,000 available to the program, through a septic inspection grant the town was awarded but never used and through $50,000 in park funding.
Mr. Schneiderman said that if the town needs to use the grant money this year or it will have to be returned.
Mr. Tetrault said he’d like to put a floating upweller shellfish growing system at Tiana, an apparatus that runs on an ice-eater pump used to provide the maximum amount of water flow, exposing the shellfish to the algae that they eat, which, in the process, helps clean the water in the bay.
“We have plenty of ideas, but we hate to approach you acting needy for money that isn’t there,” he said. “We have at Cornell a machine that builds oyster reefs. We can do this.”
CCE marine program director Chris Pickerell and the marine program’s outreach manager, Kim Barbour, said the site could also be used for CCE’s other ecological work, including weaving mats for underwater eelgrass habitat and planting native species of beach grasses for dune restoration.
“Trying to get people more excited about habitat is a little more difficult (than oysters), but it’s all part of the recipe for success,” said Ms. Barbour. “For real improvement to the bays, that’s what we want to see.”
Mr. Bouvier said he’d like to see the site run on alternative energy, and he’d like to work with Suffolk County to install an advanced septic system there.
“We want to do more of these,” said Mr. Bouvier. “It’s important to have this from one end of town to another. i don’t think we can do enough.”