‘Blindsided’ by Oyster Farming

Floating aquaculture in Gardiner’s Bay raises concerns of a changing seascape
Potential oyster-aquaculture plots have been laid out in Gardiner’s Bay from near the Devon Yacht Club to Napeague Harbor Inlet. Some neighbors are beginning to object. The East Hampton Star

Residents who live along Gardiner’s Bay and members of the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett are unhappy about a changing seascape, as 5 and 10-acre oyster farms have begun to appear offshore from Promised Land to Devon, extending to the Napeague Harbor Inlet. 

Suffolk County is implementing its Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program in Peconic Bay and Gardiner’s Bay. The parcels are leased for private, commercial shellfish cultivation under the program established after New York State ceded title to approximately 100,000 acres of bottomlands to Suffolk County, in 2004, and authorized the county to implement an aquaculture lease program for the region. 

The program was developed over four years and included 21 meetings of an advisory committee and two public hearings, in Hauppauge, before its formal adoption in 2009, according to program documents. 

Some bayfront residents, however, were taken by surprise by the recent appearance of the floating oyster farms, and fear that the program will result not only in a changed seascape but also impeded navigation in the bay. Two residents, neither of whom wanted to be identified, told The Star that they and their neighbors felt blindsided. 

The Devon Yacht Club “has expressed concern,” according to Dorian Dale, the county’s director of sustainability and chief recovery officer, who sits on the aquaculture lease program’s board. The county received those concerns in writing on Aug. 30, he said. “Devon asserted their concerns, then we heard in rapid order from a couple of public officials. We have assured them that we are giving the matter prompt attention and it is being considered by our law department.”

There are two active leases in proximity to the yacht club, he said, “but they do not appear to be impeding their rightful ingress and egress. One of those leases, in fact, has been active for four years. It wasn’t until a more recent lease was activated this summer in closer proximity and the leaseholder informed the club as a courtesy that they took notice.”

The club, Mr. Dale continued, cites vested property rights, historical access, and far-reaching navigability, among other issues. “These issues are complex, and it will take time for the law department to assess their merits and provide a determination. The county is certainly predisposed to coming to a reasonable resolution.” 

A request for comment from the yacht club went unanswered. “I have nothing to say about it,” an official there said earlier this month. 

The county issues leases within a delineated 29,969-acre shellfish cultivation zone. The zone includes State Department of Environmental Conservation-issued Temporary Marine Area Use Assignment locations; historical, private oyster grants, and other contiguous areas where any impacts or conflicts arising from aquaculture activity have been deemed minimal, according to the program’s overview. 

Lease applicants must obtain permits from government agencies for conducting aquaculture on their lease sites, including a shellfish culture permit from the D.E.C. once a lease has been issued. Leases are open to those planning to develop a commercial shellfish aquaculture operation. The program requires an initial $100 application fee and an annual lease fee of $200 plus $5 per acre, and $200 for private oyster grants. 

Public meetings were held on June 30 and July 26, also in Hauppauge, to review and consider lease applications for 55 sites submitted under the 2017 application cycle. Applicants in 2016 included Promised Land Mariculture Co., Empire State Shellfish Co., SeaJay Oyster Farming, and Winter Harbor Oyster Co., as well as individuals. 

The program is expected to grow. New shellfish aquaculture leases will be limited to a total of 60 additional acres per year, for a total of 600 acres by the 10th year of the program’s implementation. The program also provides municipalities, researchers, and not-for-profit groups with noncommercial shellfish cultivation leases for experimental, educational, and shellfish resource restoration purposes.

Bivalves such as oysters, hard clams, and scallops filter the water as they feed, which helps to mitigate an overabundance of nutrients that promote algal blooms such as brown tide, which can kill shellfish and finfish. Dense shellfish populations on farm sites, according to the county, will also augment the spawning potential of native populations. The aquaculture lease program “holds great promise in terms of improved water quality and revival of a shellfish industry that once provided considerable economic benefits, not to mention very tasty appetizers,” Mr. Dale said. 

The program’s overview states that the shellfish farms will increase private investment in shellfish aquaculture businesses, and will not present conflicts with commercial fishermen and other user groups.

But one bayfront summer resident said that as additional oyster farming sites are leased, navigation will be impossible in a large and growing portion of the bay, to the detriment of recreational boaters as well as commercial and recreational fishermen.