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A Delicate Balancing Act in East Hampton Shellfish Farming

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 11:30

The clerk of the East Hampton Town Trustees told his counterparts on the town board Tuesday that the town's baymen "are having a difficult time making a living," and that opposition to the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program by recreational users of waterways poses a real threat to their livelihoods.

Francis Bock spoke during a discussion of the program, under which 10-acre parcels in Peconic and Gardiner's Bays have been leased for private commercial shellfish farming since 2010. The program, known as SCALP, is currently undergoing its first 10-year review.

The clerk's remarks were in reference to complaints by shorefront property owners including the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, which sued the county over the siting of some plots that allegedly interfered with its traditional sailing activities and posed a navigational hazard. The suit has since been settled.

Last month, after "several hundred hours of work" in reviewing the program -- some of those hours marked by sharp disagreement among the nine-member body Ñ the trustees conveyed to the county recommendations including the moving or elimination of several lease sites that interfere with navigation channels. "The letter sent is a reflection of what we heard from the interested public," Mr. Bock told the board.

But, he continued, "there's so much pushback from recreational water users that I have serious concern about how this is going to shake out in the end." The program's critics, he said, want aquaculture's footprint downsized if not eliminated. "How soon before they want to remove fish traps because they're in the way of Jet Skis?" he asked. "We have to look at both sides and try to figure a true compromise for the use of these waterways. If we lose our baymen . . . we become like any other resort. There's nothing special about us at that point. This is a big concern."

Lease agreements were originally drafted with the understanding that lessees must affix their gear to the sea floor, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc noted. But shellfish cultivation higher up in the water has been found to produce superior results, hence gear is more and more being floated at or near the top, causing "some conflicts between stakeholders and user groups."

Barley Dunne, director of the town's shellfish hatchery and, with John Aldred of the trustees, the town's representative to SCALP officials, told the board that just 600 of the Peconic Estuary's 100,000 acres had been allocated to aquaculture leases over the program's first decade. "Anybody who's trying to demagogue that issue, be aware that there's only 60 10-acre lease sites to be leased over the course of the first 10 years," he said. Twenty-two of those sites are in town waters.

Farming on the water is "nothing like on land," Mr. Dunne said. "Current and wind pushes you and your gear in all directions. It's really difficult to cover" an entire lease site. "Nobody really would, anyway."

Some trustees thought that relocating sites off undeveloped land in Northwest Harbor would alleviate some objections, Mr. Aldred said, but there was "not a lot of sentiment in favor" of that proposal. That water body had been excluded from the program because commercial fishermen and the town's Fisheries Advisory Committee "didn't want anything that could impede in any way their taking of shellfish," Mr. Van Scoyoc said, "particularly scallops, at the time when we still had eelgrass in Northwest Harbor."

"I think it's important to continue and expand," the supervisor said of SCALP, "but we have to do it in a way that meets our community standards and works out conflicts between stakeholders." Aquaculture, he said, "is a viable industry that provides high quality seafood to our local markets and whatnot, and provides employment on the water, and there are also significant benefits to expanding nursery habitat for our fisheries."

A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, benefiting waterways suffering from a surplus of nitrogen due to runoff and leaching from aging or failing septic systems, which promote harmful algal blooms that can kill marine life. Alleviating conflicts between user groups is important, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, "but the uptick of nitrogen and algae within harbors is important, too." 

The trustees have always been inclusive in terms of public access to resources, he said, and "I think this is no time to stop. There has to be a balancing of that, it can't be all one way or another."

As the program's review continues, the town board should take a more active role, he said, asking his colleagues to "become further informed and have more discussion moving forward." The issue will be revisited "in the not-too-distant future," he promised.

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