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A win for aquaculture: Roadside oyster stands now permitted

Six years after oyster farmers asked the town for an opportunity to earn additional income by way of roadside operations, direct marketing by aquaculture/mariculture operators is now officially permitted. 

The Southold Town Board voted Tuesday to adopt a local law that updates a section of the Town Code dealing with accessory uses, thereby making it easier for oyster farmers to grow their businesses. The complaint of some aquaculture growers has been that they don’t have the same marketing opportunities as agricultural farmers, who are able to process on site and sell at streetside markets. At Tuesday’s public hearing they said they want the same opportunity.

“Farming is a really great struggle,” said Matt Ketcham, owner of Peconic Gold Oysters . “[I’ve] been in business out here for six years,”  he said. “There’s farm stands down the block from me, there’s farm stands across the street. They’re selling cider, donuts, apples. It’s great, and I don’t hear anybody complaining about that.”

Mr. Ketcham, like many oyster farmers and growers in the town, said his only intent is to sell oysters.

“I’m not shucking anything, I’m not serving anything, I’m not buying and selling clams, I’m not even selling lemons,” he said. “I just want to sell my oysters. A little bit of extra income.”

Dave Daly, of Southold, is founder and co-owner of Southold Bay Oysters. He said the traditional roadside stands have been a regular part of his last 39 years in Southold.

“These tiny self-serve stands have provided my family with eggs, tomatoes, blueberries and countless other locally-grown items, direct from local farmers for as long as I can remember,” he said. “It is only appropriate and long overdue that oysters be included under the roadside stand code. I find it puzzling that the proposal to include farmed oysters and roadside stands has been stalled for so long.”

Scott Russell and Bill Ruland at Tuesday’s Southold Town Board meeting. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the delay was not a consequence of inaction on the town’s part. Definitions needed to be updated and in many cases created, in the town code, he said, while permits and licenses needed to be drawn up.

Mr. Daly drew parallels to Shelter Island, where, he said roadside stand for oyster sales have been permitted for quite some time and are widely supported.

“If your board has met with marine biologists [at] Cornell Cooperative Extension … you would know all about the tremendous benefit that oysters bring to our waterways,” he said, adding that oysters filter 50 gallons of bay water each day, removing harmful nitrogen and helping keep algai blooms out of the bays.

Separate from the more than one dozen oyster farms in the town is Southold Fish Market, owned by Charlie Manwaring. Mr. Manwaring sells an array of seafood items, which he purchases from roughly 15 different local fishing operations.

He said that he worries that what could starting out as a small-scale oyster operation at roadside stands could grown into something far larger that could hurt his business.

“What’s next? They say they want just oysters, but now they throw a few clams in the cages and now they’re harvesting clams, scallops. What about the fishermen?” he asked. “This is just – it’s a stepping stone to be bigger; to where my fish market no longer – you know, everybody wants a little piece of it. I worked hard for what I got. Now, will their few oysters that they sell hurt me? Probably not, but it’s a concern to me.”

Charlie Manwaring of Southold Fish Market at Tuesday’s hearing. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

Local oyster farmers tried to assure Mr. Manwaring that wouldn’t be the case.

Mr. Manwaring also expressed frustration over the fact that oyster farmers with roadside stands would not be required to pay business taxes like him.

Elizabeth Peeples and her wife Stefanie Bassett of Southold recently purchased an oyster farm in Gardiners Bay, known as Little Ram Oyster Co. They said they feel the community support, but are still affected by the high costs of starting and running a farm.

“Where do we sell? How can we make the money?” Ms. Bassett asked. “It’s been very expensive to start the farm; it’s very expensive to keep it going and this is the one thing that [we] would benefit greatly [from] … For us – for any business, it’s better to go direct.”

Caption: Mr. Ketcham harvests oysters in Peconic Bay in 2017. (Credit: David Benthal)

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