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Battle brewing between shellfish growers and recreational boaters

There’s a battle going on in the water. 

In one corner, there are shellfish, particularly oysters, which many say have been making a comeback in large part due to Suffolk County’s 10-year-old aquaculture lease program, which rents underwater land in Peconic and Gardiners bays to shellfish growers. 

Most of the leases involve 10 acres, and the program now has 55 leased locations totaling 785 acres, with 21 new spots proposed, officials said. 

In the other corner, there are recreational boaters. 

While they say they support the shellfish program, many have also raised concerns that the proliferation of floating gear and buoys associated with the shellfish program could create navigational difficulties.

One group, the Shelter Island Yacht Club, is even asking Suffolk County to enact a moratorium on new 10-acre shellfishing leases until a review of the program is undertaken. 

“This would allow the county the time to address concerns that have been raised, and for all involved to come to a resolution that addresses what occurs in the water column and the navigational impact prior to applicants making the additional investment as part of a ten-year lease program,” yacht club commodore Bryan Carey wrote in a letter to county officials.

If a moratorium can’t be implemented, Mr. Carey wrote, “we would request the county develop specifications on gear and buoy systems as part of the lease program to mitigate the impact on boaters and sailors.”

These could include “restricting the use of floating gear and a requirement for daisy chain or similar approaches to buoy systems to minimize surface hazards,” his letter said. 

The yacht club’s letter was read at Monday’s meeting of the county’s aquaculture lease program, where new leases are proposed, and was submitted as a comment on nine of the 21 proposed lease sites. 

Mr. Carey said Monday that a number of the locations proposed for shellfish leases “are heavily used in navigating and sailing regattas.”

Chuck Westfall of the Long Island Oyster Growers Association took exception.

He said the term “navigational hazard” comes from the Coast Guard.

“If there’s a real navigational hazard, just call the Coast Guard. It may just be a navigational inconvenience, I’ll give you that,” Mr. Westfall said. “A navigational hazard is a real thing. It shouldn’t just be bandied about as if the house is on fire.”

He added that boaters are obligated to avoid fishing gear. 

“And it doesn’t matter if you’re in a race or not. That’s just the way it is,” Mr. Westfall said. 

A number of people from both sides voiced their opinions at Monday’s two-and-a-half hour meeting. 

“This program has allowed a renewed oyster industry to become established, creating jobs and an economic engine while providing fresh local product that our residents and visitors enjoy,” said Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “We are in support of all oyster growers’ ability to farm, and we are opposed to any moratorium.”

The Peconic Bay Sailing Association also objected to about a dozen of the proposed shellfishing sites.

Specifically, they objected to the use of floating gear other than marker buoys to support aquaculture operations.

“The use of floating pontoons or other larger devices to support off-bottom operations presents a hazard to navigation and increases the likelihood of damage to vessels and to the floating gear itself in waters regularly used by our members and other members of the public for day sailing and racing,” association commodore Greg Cukor said in a letter to the county.

Mr. Cukor said the problem is magnified at night because the floating gear is often unlighted. 

But, he added, “the revitalization of the commercial shellfishing industry is a wonderful thing for the health of the bays and the local economy.”

He said some sailing association members are part-time commercial fishermen. 

Ian Wile, owner of Little Creek Oyster Farm and Market in Greenport, got his start as an oyster farmer through the county program. He said the approximately 1,010 acres being used in the aquaculture program represents about one-half of a percent of the total number of bottom acres in the Peconic Bay system. 

The 55 leases currently in place, he said, have an average of three employees and create 165 direct, year-round, non-hospitality, non-tourism-related jobs. 

Mr. Wile said he spent about $250,000 on shellfishing-related purchases in 2017 and had a payroll of about $188,000.

“As a lifelong recreational boater and sailor with many miles past my rudder, I understand the frustration of navigation and sharing the water,” he said. “Dodging NYC water taxis, ferries, tankers and tugs was like sailing in a game of Frogger! However, I believe that the benefit of the many versus the impact on the few is important here.”

Mr. Wile urged the county not to declare a moratorium on new shellfishing leases.

Karin Rivara of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company in Southold was on the advisory committee that created the aquaculture lease program and has been growing shellfish in the Peconics herself for more than 35 years.

She also opposed a moratorium on new leases and said she supports the new applications discussed Monday. 

The county is undertaking a 10-year review of the program, as was planned all along, and can review concerns people have with the program then, she said. 

“I’m just a guy who loves to sail,” said Brian Andrews of New Suffolk, who noted that his main concern pertained to the area around Robins Island.

“There is a weekly regatta there from April to the end of October. It’s about 30 boats every Wednesday night,” he said.

He said this was “an important part of life” there, and expressed concern that equipment placed there for shellfishing could create a navigational hazard. 

“I want this industry to thrive, and I think most recreational boaters and users of the waterway do as well,” said county Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), who represents the South Fork and Shelter Island. She urged the aquaculture lease board to consider the impact the leases it awards may have on potentially conflicting uses.

The board plans to decide who gets which lease spaces at its next meeting Monday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. in Riverhead Town Hall. 

The board also announced that its 10-year review of the lease program would begin in September. The review was planned when the program launched, officials said. 

“We will make every effort to make sure that people who want to participate in this process will be given the opportunity to do so,” said DeWitt Davis of the county’s economic development and planning division. The study, Mr. Davis said, will take between 18 and 24 months.

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Photo caption: As oyster farming continues to expand in waters around the North Fork, a debate has emerged over balancing the concerns of the aquaculture industry and boaters. (David Benthal photo) 

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