Pictured Above: The crew of Peeko Oysters of New Suffolk, with their growing gear purchased in 2018 with the assistance of the Peconic Land Trust | Peconic Land Trust photo
Oyster aquaculture has been booming on the East End for the past several years, and this is no accident. It’s in large part due to the success of the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program, also known as SCALP, which grants shellfish farmers the use of 10-acre plots throughout the Peconic Estuary.
The program, in place for a decade now, is undergoing a review for changes to regulations for the upcoming decade, but its success is not without detractors, particularly among the ranks of yacht clubs where many members have vocally opposed allowing floating shellfish cages to be placed in areas that recreational boaters frequently navigate.
Nearly 40 people spoke at a public hearing on the extension of the program before the Suffolk County Legislature Dec. 15, with many owners of local shellfish farms begging the legislature to expand the program, while recreational boaters, nearly as vociferously, urged the legislature to cut it back.
The aquaculture lease program began in 2010, after New York State ceded title to about 110,000 acres of underwater land in Peconic and Gardiners bays to the county for use for aquaculture. Of that acreage, 810 acres are currently leased to 58 shellfish farmers, according to the county.
Shellfish including oysters, hard clams and bay scallops may be cultivated on the leases, though oysters have provided the most vigorous local harvest. The county is also studying the feasibility of cultivating seaweed on the leases in the Peconics — a trial program begun in 2016 using sugar kelp had mixed results due to the warm waters in the estuary, but warm season species of seaweed are also being considered.
As currently drafted, the county will impose a 60-acre per year cap on new aquaculture leases for the next 10 years, which can be rolled over to the next year if not filled, for a total of 600 new acres of leased bay bottom at the end of 10 years. Each lease parcel would be ten acres, meaning just six new lease areas could be approved each year, in addition to existing leases. This is the same rate of growth the program has allowed for the past 10 years.
In the past nine lease cycles, the demand for new lease area has always exceeded the supply available under the cap, according to the county.
Some who spoke in opposition to the extension of the program were confused by a map that showed 29,000 acres of bay bottom that could be used by lease program participants — that map shows the locations within the estuary that are suitable for leases, but is not meant to represent the total area that would be covered by shellfish farms.
“I’m concerned about the scale and approach of what is being outlined for the next ten years,” said Peter Mendelman of Seacoast Enterprises, which operates four marinas in East Hampton’s Three Mile Harbor. “We’re gonna pave paradise and put up a parking lot. We’re giving public space to oyster farmers.”
The map showing 29,000 suitable acres is actually a reduction from the 110,000 acres originally made available to the county for aquaculture, said South Fork County Legislator Bridget Fleming. And the plans for the next ten years include paring that acreage back further, to 17,000 farmable acres.
“We’re hearing from farmers a real disappointment in the reduction in the number of acres,” said Ms. Fleming. “You see so few farms out there because the first 10 years were limited to those 600 acres.”
Each prospective farmer looking for a lease each year can submit proposals for three sites within the estuary, she added, and may need to revert to their second or third choice if there is opposition to any of them.
“We are a little frustrated with all the acres you’re taking away,” said Stephanie Bassett, who with her wife, Elizabeth Peeples, runs Little Ram Oyster Company off of Shelter Island. She said their company would greatly benefit from an additional, more protected site in Orient Harbor.
Their story, of leaving their careers to come to the East End after learning of the opportunities for shellfish farming here, were similar to those of many other oyster farmers.
Will Peckham, who runs the West Robins Oyster Company, moved to Suffolk County in 2016 after hearing about the program.
“This is a unique ecosystem. We’re close to New York City, which is the number one consumer of farmed shellfish in the entire country,” he said. “Our industry lags behind other communities and other states, in part because of the pushback from other wealthy bay users.”
Mr. Peckman said floating gear is essential to make shellfish farming economically feasible here.
“When we site, install and maintain oyster farming equipment properly, it allows farmers to make use of sites that may be otherwise unproductive,” he said.
“Floating gear allows for efficiencies in labor that allows us to produce more product or pay employees more,” he said adding that he was able to create a new full time position of seed oyster manager on his farm this year because he is using floating gear.
“You get your product to market faster, which increases the magnitude of ecosystem services we can create,” he said. “I’ve documented zero negative instances of boater interactions with my equipment.”
He added that many recreational and charter fishing boats have begun to fish near his farm because the fishermen realize it is a good habitat for porgies.
Leaders of local yacht clubs have led the opposition to the use of floating oyster cages.
The Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett filed suit against the county in 2018 over a 10-acre lease in Gardiner’s Bay that was in the same location as their longstanding sailboat race course. The county agreed to move the lease in a 2019 settlement.
Devon Yacht Club Commodore Curt Schade, who said he was speaking for recreational boaters and residents in East Hampton Town, said the problem with the program is the use of floating gear.
“These floating steel and plastic cages pose safety issues, and create conflicts with recreational boaters,” he said.
Sam and Adam Younes are the owners of Promised Land Mariculture in Napeague Harbor.
“We should be doing all we can to support the growth of this industry in Suffolk County,” said Sam Younes.
“The free environmental benefits that go along with oyster farming and shellfish farming will be eliminated if those leases are removed,” said Adam Younes.
Oysters typically filter about 50 gallons of oyster per day, cleaning the water around them.
Adam Younes added that the East Hampton Town Youth Sailing Progam, which launches its sailboats adjacent to the Devon Yacht Club, had written a letter in support of his shellfish farm, saying the kids are not impacted by the farm and haven’t had any negative interactions with it.
Orient Yacht Club Commodore Keith Scott Morton told the legislature that “more than 500 people use the narrow portion of Orient Harbor where the SCALP expansion is proposed,” and added that there is “no assurance at this point that acceptable farming methods will allow Orient Harbor to remain navigable.”
Mr. Martin also recommended that oyster farmers not be allowed to use floating gear.
Two members of the Orient Yacht Club also spoke to say a letter Mr. Morton had written to the legislature opposing the SCALP program on behalf of the yacht club did not reflect the views of all of its members.
“I’m a lover and avid consumer of Oysterponds oysters,” said Mimi Fahs, who is a member of the Orient Yacht Club. “Both organizations are local treasures, and it pains me that they’re at odds at the moment. Every member loves the sea. We’re neighbors. Surely there’s enough water to accommodate both sailors and oysters.”
“The letter from the Orient Yacht Club commodore was not approved by the board or the membership and it does not represent the views of all Orient Yacht Club members or sailors,” she added. “I found the aggressive tone to be unnecessarily hostile.”
“Baymen don’t tell us how to rig our boats,” she added.
Phil Mastrangelo, a partner in the Oysterponds Shellfish Co., said his four sons went through the youth sailing program at the Orient Yacht Club, where he is still a member.
“We will survive by preserving the accolation of the Long island oyster, which was once the best in the world,” he said. “To attack and restrict this program at the beginning is wrong, I believe.”
He added that there is a 10 acre buffer zone around each 10-acre oyster plot.
“If you can’t navigate that, you shouldn’t be navigating on the bay anyway,” he said. “The mooring field of the Orient Yacht Club is not only ever-growing, but it encompasses something like 15 acres. Kids navigate that perfectly well getting out to the bay, under sail. I believe these arguments are specious, at the least.”
Mary Dorman, a captain from Orient, said she recently counted the number of oyster buoys in Orient Harbor and said there were more than 300 of them.
“If that particular gear continues to be used, it would be in the thousands,” she said.
Karen Rivara of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company in Southold, a pioneer in the industry who sells oyster seed throughout the region, said Ms. Dorman was likely mistaking Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Peconic Bay Scallop Restoration Program, which has a spawner sanctuary in a corner of Orient Harbor, for an oyster farm.
“There aren’t any commercial oyster farms in Orient Harbor,” she said.
Ms. Rivara, the current President of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association and a former President of the Long Island Farm Bureau, added that New York is lagging behind neighboring states in its support for aquaculture.
“I see it on my seed sales reports,” she said. “The average Rhode Island grower orders four times the seed as New York, and Connecticut growers order eight times as much. They have cultivation areas in naturally productive areas.”
“We will not survive restrictions on acreage and gear,” she added.
“The reality is that oyster farms are directly analogous to land-based farms,” said Charles Westfall, President of the Long Island Oyster Growers Association. “We have weeds, competitors, predators and diseases that attack our crop. A land-based farm has a number of ways to combat these issues — pesticides, insecticides, fungicides. None of those things are available to us as oyster farmers. What we have is our gear.”
“Can you imagine if, 100 years ago, a Suffolk County Legislature said that, for aesthetic reasons, we’re not going to allow farmers to use tractors. These are the only tools we have to grow our crop and get our crop to market at a price that allows us to stay in business.”
“All stakeholders are not equal,” said Paul McCormick, who owns the Great Gun Shellfish Company in Moriches Bay. “Farmers are people who labor all day in all conditions to grow food, and there are yacht club members who sail for fun and serve the very same food at cocktail parties on their veranda. How do I know? Because I am a yacht club member. This isn’t the ‘make the yacht club members happy’ program. There should be no restrictions whatsoever on floating gear.”
East Hampton Town Trustee Rick Drew, who said he was speaking as a resident, said he didn’t believe aquaculture should be allowed in Northwest Harbor.
“It’s very productive for shellfishing. To take those lands away from the public and privatize them would be very unfair, and the leaseholder would ultimately benefit, at a direct loss and the expense of shellfishermen who have used the bottom lands for approximately 400 years.”
Rod Richardson of East Hampton said he was a fan of the SCALP program “up until the appearance of floating cages.”
“The program was initially written for on-the-bottom gear,” he said. “Now it’s blocking the entire water column, which interferes with the public trust doctrine and navigation rights.”
Mr. Richardson, who has made headlines in the past for removing “no trespassing” signs from Cartwright Island, a shoal off Gardiners Island, added that a group called Citizens of Gardiners Bay has gathered 2,000 signatures on a petition against two leases in Gardiners Bay.
He said he didn’t agree with proponent’s positions that oysters are good for the environment.
“We’ve heard the same thing from every industry — fracking, the nuclear industry, plastics,” he said. “They all have what are called ‘negative externalities.’ That’s the same thing about floating cages. Floating gear violates the Public Trust Doctrine and it’s going to be in conflict with New York State law.”
The legislature recessed the public hearing without voting on whether to approve the changes to the SCALP program.
Public testimony is still being collected by calling 631.853.3685 to record a three-minute testimony over the phone, by emailing comments to Clerk.Legislature@suffolkcountyny.gov or sending testimony by mail to the attention of the clerk’s office at the Suffolk County Legislature, P.O. Box 6100, Hauppauge, NY 11788.