Local politicians, community leaders and environmental activists gathered at the Laurel Hollow Dock on Sept. 14 to mark the end of a successful oyster gardening season and celebrate the positive impact the program, which began at that dock, has had on the harbor.
By their nature, shellfish can enhance marine habitats and improve water quality. An adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.
The North Shore Oyster Gardening Program, a program led by the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Protection Committee, was formed in 2017. Hundreds of volunteers have been trained, equipped and supported to raise oysters.
“We started off small and year after year we started to grow,” said Barry Udelson, a marine resource specialist from Cornell Cooperative Extension, a partner of the program. “We provide the single set oyster as well as the spat on shell [oyster] from our hatchery in Southold. We raise it at Huntington at Gold Star Beach until it’s big enough to hand it off to the gardeners. And throughout the season we provide technical guidance.”
The “oyster gardens,” which are located at West Harbor Beach in Bayville, Beekman Beach in Oyster Bay, Laurel Hollow Dock in Laurel Hollow and Eagle Dock in Cold Spring Harbor, contain cages that house 1,000 oysters. Volunteers help build the cages in the spring, and then, through the months of June and September, they do a bi-weekly cleaning of the cages and measure the oysters.
Rob Crafa, coordinator of the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Protection Committee, said 100 people responded to an email blast looking for volunteer oyster gardeners in 2017. In the first year, there was 40 gardeners and now there are 150 gardeners.
“I’m so thrilled to see the scientists that are diving to see the oysters that we have seeded the previous years are doing well and thriving,” said volunteer Deborah Perrone, who has been volunteering for the program since its inception six-years-ago. “It is one of the best experiences I could imagine. It’s a real feel good experience and I will say the rewards far outweigh the efforts.”
Another volunteer, Claudia Kulhanek-Pereira, said she enjoys volunteering with her family.
“My daughters are seven and nine,” Kulhanek-Pereira said. “They have taken this on full force with us. We like to just get in the water and work on cleaning our waterways. We take so much from the water and we love being out and about; whether it’s swimming or boating or surfing… It’s nice to just give back and to have my girls at such a young age be part of an environmental initiative. I think it’s a great way for them to grow up and pass this on to future generations.”
Under the care of the volunteers, the oysters grow from 12 to 14 millimeters in size, the size of a pinky nail, to more than 70 millimeters, slightly less than three inches. There are upwards of 200,000 oysters now because of the program, including 190,000 single-set oysters and 20,000 spat on shell oysters.
“We’re here to celebrate six years of a very successful oyster gardening program for the North Shore community,” Laurel Hollow Mayor Dan DeVita said. “Quite frankly, I had my arm twisted in order to start this. I said, ‘who is going to want to get in the water, get dirty to clean these cages.’ The response has been overwhelming… Number one, clean water. There is no one who walks the earth, at least a reasonable person, who doesn’t want clean water in our Sound.”
The program also fosters a sense of community and connection with the water.
“This program started in the Laurel Hollow community, which was great,” DeVita said. “People came down, got to know each other. But as the program expanded, it’s brought a great sense of community… We’re talking involvement of so many villages; Oyster Bay Cove, Bayville… in Huntington there are people who joined this.”
Even local organizations have undertaken involvement with the project, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor High School students, Three Harbors Garden Club, Eagle Dock, Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club, Lloyd Harbor Bath Club and Jericho-Brookville Lions Club.
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino said it’s been very important to join with the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Committee to make the environmental initiative of oyster gardening in Oyster Bay’s waters a reality.
“This bay is one of the finest resources any where in America,” Saladino said. “When people like Billy Joel could live anywhere in the world and they choose Oyster Bay to live, doesn’t that speak volumes? So in our town and working along with our villages, we will continue to strive to protect the beautiful harbor and improve our quality of water.”
And to add to the success of the program, Udelson noted that all involved with this project are not fighting against Mother Nature.
“These water bodies were home to oysters; loads of them,” Udelson said. “More than we can count. For a variety of different reasons, oyster populations have dwindeled…the more of these programs that exist where we’re putting oysters and clams back into the harbors, we’re helping to boost the natural populations. It will take time to get back to the period of when there was so much shellfish, but every little bit that these programs do help along the way.”
As time goes on, Udelson said, the Town of Oyster Bay should see exponential growth of oysters and other shellfish settling naturally.