County will begin leasing sections of Peconic Estuary

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Suffolk County lawmakers have approved a plan to lease underwater sections of the Peconic Estuary to baymen so they can raise shellfish in submerged cages.

The practice, known as mariculture or aquaculture, is designed to help augment the struggling baymen’s incomes, boost wild shellfish stocks and improve water quality as millions of the caged shellfish filter the water as they feed.

Still, a number of East End bayman are skeptical the program will do them much good.

“It’s a big initial investment, and very few people survive in it as a business,” said Willy Caldwell, a bayman from Hampton Bays who has 100 oyster cages in the Peconic Bay system. “If you don’t work the water, you’re not going to get it right, and if you work the water, you can’t afford it.

“Then you have a quarter-million dollars worth of gear out there,” he continued. “You have to deal with storms in the winter and ice. You can lose a lot of money if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy touted the program, which was approved by the County Legislature on December 2, as simply the latest step in the county’s multimillion-dollar effort to restore shellfish stocks throughout the East End’s bays and harbors and to keep the age-old profession of baymen viable, if only on a small scale.

The county also has dedicated more than a million dollars a year in recent years to restoring scallop populations—most recently joining with East Hampton Town to raise and release 600,000 baby scallops into town-controlled harbors.

“The return of vibrant populations of clams, scallops and oysters to these waters will not only boost our marine-based economy,” Mr. Levy said in a statement, “but also provide a valuable environmental benefit to the health of our bay system due to a shellfish’s natural filtering abilities.”

County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said the program is intended to allow more local residents to find a livelihood on the bays.

“We hope this will help keep more baymen in the area,” he said. “They can use this to augment what they’re doing now and continue to free harvest as well. We’re there to help. If people are thinking about it, we will help them get started. We hope we have developed a program that is user-friendly.”

The leasing program will open up some 3,100 acres of state-owned bay bottoms in the Peconics and Gardiners Bay to aquaculture operations. The county will dole out leases, at a nominal fee, through a lottery system in 5- and 10-acre parcels. The leases will be phased in slowly with just 60 acres of bottom lands added each year.

Each lease holder will be allowed to anchor dozens of cages or trays filled with growing shellfish on the bottomlands they are assigned.

The leasing program’s management plan was drafted by a committee of marine scientists, working baymen and lawmakers over the last year. The committee carefully selected the areas of bottomlands to be leased so that they don’t interfere with already productive shellfish grounds or areas where other types of commercial fishing are taking place. The committee also chose to require that shellfish be raised in cages, rather than broadcast on the open bay bottoms, as is done in some other states, because of concerns about methods used for harvesting large numbers of shellfish from the open bottom.

New York State gave Suffolk County 110,000 acres of bottomlands in the Peconics and Gardiners Bay in the late 1800s to be used for underwater shellfish cultivation. Oysters became the most popular product because of their limited wild range and high market value.

Through the mid-1950s, the industry flourished and large oyster companies steadily consolidated large swaths of bottom and grew tens of millions of oysters—though not in cages, as proposed now. Drops in demand through the second half of the 20th century and eventually the devastation caused by the “brown tide” in the 1980s and 1990s killed the industry. Now there are only about 500 acres of bottoms being used for aquaculture, primarily in the area around Robbins Island.

The current work on jump-starting a modern leasing program is intended to give baymen an alternative to pursuing wild stocks of shellfish, which have faded since the brown tide years. A handful of local baymen have started smaller aquaculture efforts in the bays in recent years.

Some local baymen were skeptical of the county program, saying that it either isn’t going to help most of them stay in business or that it could threaten those few aquaculture operations that are already in business. Others said it might be a boon to aquaculture if handled right.

Mr. Caldwell, the Hampton Bays bayman, uses state-leased bottomlands for his oyster cages. He said he would welcome the opportunity to expand his operation. He currently leases 5 acres of bottom, split over two areas, and would like to expand to as many as 15 acres if he can get leases through the county program. But he was doubtful of the level of demand on the part of other baymen to get into the aquaculture business. It requires a substantial initial investment in the cages and a boat. The size of the Peconics and Gardiners Bay means that their waters can be very rough and a large boat is required to maintain an aquaculture operation. Mr. Caldwell’s work boat is 50 feet.

Southampton Town Baymen’s Association president Ian Burliuk said he personally gave up any hope of participating in the leasing program when it was decided that cages would be required for raising oysters since the investment would be so large. He said the oysters—the vast majority of shellfish expected to be raised through the program will be oysters—grown in cages will not get as big, and therefore not as valuable, as those grown on the open bottom. But, he noted, growing oysters on open bottom would require the use of mechanical harvesting methods.

Mr. Schneiderman said mechanical harvesting had been ruled out because of concerns about the industrialization of the harvesting process; many environmentalists and baymen objected to that process.

Sam Rispoli, a commercial fisherman from Hampton Bays, said he was concerned the leasing program could cause conflicts between the aquaculture growers and baymen seeking to harvest wild shellfish stocks. The program calls the lands it has designated for aquaculture “unproductive bottom” but Mr. Rispoli said it may not stay that way.

“You may not have clams or scallops there now, but if you get a good scallop set or the hard clams come back, you could have a problem,” Mr. Rispoli said. Mr. Caldwell acknowledged that a good number of wild scallops had set around one of his trap areas and that he had moved his traps to allow harvesters to get at them.

Mr. Schneiderman said the committee had worked with scientists to identify areas for the new leasing program that are suitable for aquaculture but are devoid of any signs of shellfish stocks and any natural shellfish habitat such as eelgrass beds. The legislator said the hope is to have the first leases assigned by next spring.

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