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Oyster Farm Leases Remain Controversial

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 12:15

On the 333rd anniversary of the Dongan Patent, which granted them authority over most of the bottomlands in town, the East Hampton Town Trustees held their final meeting of 2019. It was a 187-minute affair that saw impassioned arguments for and against a county shellfish cultivation program that is at present under an initial 10-year review.

Under the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program, parcels in Peconic and Gardiner’s Bays have been leased for private commercial shellfish farming since 2010. A review is required to determine if and how the program, known as SCALP, should be changed and implemented in 2020 and beyond, and includes an overall evaluation of it to date.

The leasing of bottomlands has pro­ven controversial in East Hampton, leading to a lawsuit by the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett claiming that floating oyster cages interfered with boating activities. Over the last month, several residents and representatives of marinas and private clubs have complained to the trustees that the lease sites were set based on input from commercial fishermen but not other stakeholders, and that the program assumed oyster cages would be on the bay bottom and not floating at the surface, where, they say, they conflict with other waterborne pursuits. They asked that the trustees urge the county to curtail leasing in Gardiner’s Bay.

Apart from a special meeting for an executive session yesterday, Monday’s meeting of the trustees capped a year that started in remarkably similar fashion. On Jan. 9, the trustees hosted an informational session on the 10-year review, at which stakeholders portrayed, depending on their point of view, an egregious encroachment on waters that have been sailed for generations or a not-in-my-backyard intransigence that impedes environmental and economic gain.

On Monday, Joan Priori of Lazy Point in Amagansett read excerpts of letters submitted by multiple stakeholders including the Devon Yacht Club, Citizens of Gardiner’s Bay, the Lazy Point Neighborhood Association, and the Breakwater Yacht Club in Sag Harbor. All are opposed to the program in its present form.

“Surface farming equipment is unacceptable in Gardiner’s and Napeague Bays due to it posing very serious hazards to navigation and impeding the public’s rights to freely use the water for recreation,” Ms. Priori read from the Lazy Point Neighborhood Association’s letter. “The gear is unsightly, which spoils scenic water views.” Moreover, “the bays will not benefit from oysters’ filtering capabilities. They are some of the cleanest bodies of water in the State, as per Dr. Chris Gobler” of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “They have no need of oysters.”

“The program is a mess,” reads a letter from Curtis Schade, the Devon Yacht Club’s commodore. “The county only has the right to give out leases to the bottomland and no control over the use of floating gear.” The sheltered waters of Gardiner’s Bay, he wrote, “and more open exposure of Napeague Bay bordering the Reach receive extensive boating use of all types, including sailing and motor boating, canoeing, kayaking, and rowing, windsurfing, waterskiing, and Jet-Skis.” The yacht club operates a sailing school and children’s camp, he noted, and holds periodic sailboat races. “Could we find a worse spot for floating gear oyster farms?”

Bill Schultz of Springs, who said he has been harvesting shellfish for 61 years, told the trustees that Northwest Harbor should be left alone by the SCALP program, citing its status as “one of the most productive bay scallop grounds in the Northeast,” providing a sizable economic benefit to Long Island. It “should not be leased to private business,” he said.

In discussing the matter last month, the trustees had considered locations where floating oyster cages would not draw complaints, including Northwest Harbor. Reaction was mixed, both among residents and the trustees themselves. John Aldred, who is the trustees’ liaison to the county, told Mr. Schultz on Monday that he had not advocated for Northwest Harbor as a site for the SCALP program. “Our point was not to necessarily take anything off the table, just to look at the town as a whole and meet various groups to see the reaction we would get. That’s the spirit in which I approached the Northwest people.”

But Adam Younes of Promised Land Mariculture Company endorsed the program, asserting that “a lot of what people are talking about can be described, really, as Nimby.” His gear is floated, he said, because oyster cultivation at the top of the water column is more successful than at the bay bottom. Oyster farms using floating gear have lighted corner buoys and are on federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maps, he said. “If you’re a responsible boater and looking at a map, you will see that it’s there.”

Growing oysters in Gardiner’s Bay “is a huge selling point for me,” given the pristine waters, said Mr. Younes, adding that he occupies the site legally, follows the rules, and “I feel this is a viable way to make a living, especially in a town like this, founded on farming and fishing.”

The county would like to receive comment on the program by year’s end, Mr. Aldred said, and program officials will meet next month. “My understanding is they won’t be addressing the location of leases until sometime in the February time frame.” He suggested that the trustees revisit the subject next month, after a new board is sworn in.

Mr. Aldred was re-elected last month, as were Francis Bock, the clerk; Jim Grimes and Bill Taylor, deputy clerks; Rick Drew, and Susan McGraw Keber. Mike Martinsen, an oyster farmer, along with Tim Garneau and Ben Dollinger, were also elected, and will join their new colleagues in January.


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