$10 Million From State for Shellfish

Water quality and coastal resiliency are the goals at five sanctuary sites

The nascent effort to mitigate the degraded condition of Long Island’s waterways got a boost last week when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a $10.4 million shellfish restoration initiative that is also intended to bolster coastal resiliency. 

In the Sept. 6 announcement, the governor unveiled details of the plan, in which $7.25 million will be invested in public hatcheries across Long Island and the remainder in obtaining adult shellfish. Under the plan, the State Department of Environmental Conservation will establish a user-friendly website, hotline, and ombudsman to streamline the permitting processes for shellfish cultivation. 

Groundwater runoff and aging septic tanks are blamed for an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus in water bodies on the South Fork, which promote harmful algal blooms that have sharply reduced shellfish populations and habitat. The absence of shellfish results in further decline of water quality. 

Oysters and clams filter water naturally, with oysters able to filter as many as 50 gallons per day, hard clams about half that amount. Restoring native, self-sustaining shellfish populations will also add resilience to coastlines, according to the New York League of Conservation Voters, which cites studies demonstrating that oyster reefs can help with wave attenuation and stabilization of shoreline sediments. 

Five new sanctuary sites, including Shinnecock Bay, will be established in Suffolk and Nassau Counties to transplant seeded clams and oysters and expand public shellfish hatcheries through a grant program. Cornell Cooperative Extension and Stony Brook University will manage the sites in partnership with municipalities and volunteer organizations. 

Up to 179 million shellfish will be seeded over the next two years, enough to filter the water at the respective sites every three days. Shellfish will include a mix of adult and juvenile clams and oysters. The sites will be monitored to assess survival, growth, and reproduction in order to gauge the effort’s success and guide future seeding. 

Cornell Cooperative Extension will receive $5.25 million over two years to expand its public shellfish hatchery and plant shellfish at the sanctuary sites. A $2 million grant program will help build or expand public shellfish hatcheries. Discussions with the Towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Brookhaven, Hempstead, and Islip, and with the Shinnecock Nation, are underway, according to a release from Governor Cuomo’s office. 

The sanctuary sites were chosen in areas closed to shellfishing and that have marginal water quality, said Chris Pickerell, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s marine program director. “In other words, these areas have poor water quality, but not so poor that they will not support shellfish. The hope is that by introducing enough shellfish in high enough concentrations, we can jump-start the natural repopulation process while having a meaningful impact on water quality that should help to limit harmful algae blooms.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension will provide the program’s seed oysters and clams, Mr. Pickerell said, which will be produced at its hatchery at Cedar Beach in Southold. Part of the funding from the state will be directed to capital improvements to the hatchery to increase its production capacity, with additional funding allocated to hiring staff dedicated to the program. 

It is hoped that the first batch of oysters will be distributed next summer, with clams to follow in November 2018, Mr. Pickerell said. 

To achieve shellfish in the numbers and size needed for the restoration effort, clams will be raised in floating upweller system nurseries, known as FLUPSYs. A FLUPSY is a raft in which nutrient-rich water is circulated through compartments holding juvenile shellfish. 

“We expect to have as many as 41 FLUPSYs during 2018 and up to 70 in 2019,” Mr. Pickerell said, each able to hold around a million clams. “The plan is to get the young clams in these systems as early as possible and at a fairly large size so that we will be able to produce larger clams.”

At least one owner of a South Fork marina has expressed an interest in hosting a FLUPSY, Mr. Pickerell said. “We look forward to networking with anyone who wants to work with us on this effort,” he said. He hopes to work with the Southampton Town Trustees to increase the quantity of shellfish produced at Cornell’s new Tiana Bayside Facility in Hampton Bays. 

“We also work closely with East Hampton Town at all levels,” he said, and he hopes to coordinate with the shellfish hatchery, the trustees, and the town board. 

Barley Dunne, the director of the town shellfish hatchery, said yesterday that he had yet to hear from state officials or Cornell, but “I’m assuming it means expanding our production by several million shellfish a year.” He also hoped that funding would allow for another full-time employee so that additional work can be carried out. “It’s exciting, definitely,” he said. “Another chapter for us.”

As it does with its Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training program, an oyster-seeding project known as SPAT, Cornell will engage the public in the effort. “There will be a significant youth-education component to our work,” Mr. Pickerell said, with a plan to develop and deliver shellfish-based science, technology, engineering, and math programming for youth throughout Long Island. “There is money in this grant to fund free classes for various age groups, and we look forward to integrating this programming into local school and camp curricula,” he said. 

“All in all,” he said, “this is a very exciting project, and I can’t wait to start.”