New way seen to stock shellfish

Mattituck resident Paul Matthews hopes to secure enough funding to finish converting this former oil tanker into a mobile hatchery for millions of clam and scallop larvae for Project SERV, a new take on rebuilding shellfish populations.

For Paul Matthews, the sky is no longer the limit — the bottom of the sea is. The Mattituck resident is head of Project SERV, a new not-for-profit organization dedicated to the restoration of depleted shellfish populations, the harvest of which has dropped nearly 6,000 pounds a year in the Peconic estuary since 1984.

SERV stands for Spawning Early Release Vessel, an oil tanker-turned mobile hatchery for millions of clam and scallop larvae. The vessel, a 60-foot yard oiler (a boat that delivers oil to other boats) with six 4,000-gallon tanks, is designed to release batches of about 20 million larvae into sea bottoms after a two-week incubation period. The animals would be released early in the season, when there are fewer predators, to boost their survival rate.

Mr. Matthews claims that the early release of all those larvae would be more effective than restocking techniques currently in place, such as releasing much smaller quantities of 6-month-old clams grown in a hatchery into the wild.

“The advantage is in imitating the natural process, which is the settlement of the shellfish at two weeks of age,” he said. “This is how the shellfish do it.”

Mr. Matthews said he has acquired the vessel, which is docked at Jackson’s Marina at Shinnecock Canal, thanks to his father’s involvement in the oil industry. He’s working on converting it for aquaculture with a crew of laborers. He is looking at locations on Flanders Bay, in which scallop populations are already monitored, and in Greenport for a home port.

Mr. Matthews does not have a formal education in marine science nor a background in professional fishing, but he’s spent years studying how shellfish reproduce at the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center in Southold. He’s also conducted several experiments at the Southold Project for Aquaculture Training on Cedar Beach in Southold, where he eventually developed the concept of the mobile hatchery.

He says his theory of rebuilding stocks is like no other currently in place.

“The early release method more closely mimics nature, because the shellfish have more time to naturalize in the chosen settings,” said Mr. Matthews, adding that he’s been dreaming up the project for 10 years. “My neighbor was a clammer, and we began discussing the possibility of a mobile hatchery. I’ve always been interested in helping the baymen.”

Right now, the group’s main objective is to raise money to put Project SERV into practice. Only a few years after the success of a spawner sanctuary in Orient Harbor, Mr. Matthews said that now is the time to be proactive promoting a bigger project like his.

A fundraiser for Project SERV will take place next Friday at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead (see information box). Mr. Matthews said his budget could be about $350,000 to run a single boat and higher if he acquires more boats and moves into other regions. He does not have any substantial financial backing at this point but has applied for grants and is looking — from environmental groups to oil companies — for potential research partners.

Mr. Matthews’ Project SERV concept has received several letters of support from local aquaculture experts. In February, Stephen Tettelbach, professor of biology at Long Island University, wrote to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, saying that Mr. Matthews’ proposed method of releasing late-stage shellfish larvae into waters where they are most likely to attach to vegetation on the sea floor is “less labor intensive than the current technique of planting large scallops directly to the bay bottom or stocking in nets,” though that method has been extremely successful over the past five years in an Orient Harbor spawner sanctuary.

“While the results of these new methodologies are not known at this point, more work is needed to compare them with traditional shellfish aquaculture methods,” said Suffolk County aquaculture specialist Gregg Rivara in another letter to Mr. Levy this past winter.

“This would have many benefits to the town and county and create many positive relationships within the community,” wrote Kim Tetrault, aquaculture specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension. Project SERV “would be a natural extension of the very successful scallop restoration program.

“There is a demand for something like this now more than ever,” Mr. Matthews said, referring to the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “We’d like to eventually go port-to-port to raise consciousness while rebuilding shellfish.”

Doubling as a floating classroom, the vessel, Mr. Matthews said, could spend two weeks in ports on the East Coast with shellfish spawning demonstrations, informational video kiosks, “touch tanks” of marine life in natural states, and aquariums filled with algae and bivalves in various states demonstrating the cleansing process of nature. Rich Pirro, a former education coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, will lead the education aspect of Project SERV.

“We’ll bring natural habitat and process to people and educate them about it,” Mr. Pirro said. “What’s important is for kids to learn how to view things scientifically, whether they want to be marine scientists or pharmacists or veterinarians. I’m a big fan of hands-on learning.”

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Project SERV

‘Spawning Early Release Vessel’

A fundraiser for a new way to restore shellfish stocks Friday, June 18, from 8 to 11 p.m. Martha Clara Vineyards 6025 Sound Avenue Riverhead Tickets are $15 at the door Raw bar, live music and wine tasting For more information, call 298-7194