As August gave way to September, something important for shellfish farming in the Peconic Bay bottoms was supposed to happen. But it didn’t. And why it didn’t partly explains aquaculture’s dismally slow start on the East End. If Suffolk County and the private sector can get their act together, however, the farming of shellfish in our bay waters could add big cash to our local economy and strengthen the ecosystem as well. Let’s not forget that our region once ranked as a world market producer of shellfish.

What was supposed to happen for aquaculture this past month was a decision by the N.Y. State Department of Agriculture and Markets to open 103,000 underwater acres in Gardiner’s, Napeague and Peconic Bays to shellfish farming. These were to be added to the 25,000 acres of bay bottoms which State Ag and Markets has already turned over to Suffolk. But State Ag and Markets would only open these additional 103,000 acres if Suffolk County formally requested it. After all, the state relies on Suffolk to manage and lease these bay bottoms.

So in a rather ho-hum way, Suffolk’s county executive submitted a bill to the county legislature. Between yawns, his staff explained to the Suffolk Legislature’s environment committee that the bill would accomplish two things: call upon the state to open up the additional 103,000 acres for leasing to shellfish farmers, and also provide reimbursement for court costs if these farmers are sued for nothing more than using accepted practices in farming shellfish.

The L.I. Oyster Growers Association, along with the L.I. Farm Bureau, showed considerably more enthusiasm for this proposal during this committee’s discussion, held last month in Hauppauge. Their spirited support for this initiative, however, proved inadequate, as the county legislators in committee voted 5 to 2 to reject it.

Usually in such circumstances, the executive will quickly move behind the scenes to rally the votes with other legislators to get the full legislature to by-pass the committee and approve the bill at the upcoming session. In this instance, however, the executive’s staff withdrew the bill entirely, commenting with a sigh that they will resubmit it sometime “next year.” Then they quickly exited for lunch.

The committee’s refusal to expand the leasing of baybottoms for shellfish farming is not altogether without merit. While those 25,000 acres have been open for leasing in the Peconics for the last 10 years, only 600 acres have been leased. An even greater disappointment is the county’s sleepy forecast of leasing merely 500 to 600 more over the next several years.

There’s a considerable, environmental plus in shellfish farming. It is a way to help clean up the bay region. One hard clam filters carbons and nitrogen out of 50 gallons of estuarine waters each day. Clams, oysters, mussels and other shellfish are remarkable water purifiers, playing an important role in the Peconics’ ecosystem. Technology cannot create a more efficient and inexpensive filtration system than what filter-feeding shellfish naturally provide.

Then there is the lawsuit problem, where recreational boating groups in particular claim that aquaculture infringes on recreation in the bays.

Note that the estuary of the Peconics includes all surface waters, from the headwaters of the Peconic River and eastward across the reaches of the North and South forks, in a watershed that includes the Peconic River, Flanders Bay to Gardiner’s Bay and out to Block Island Sound between Plum Island to Montauk Point. With the entire region made up of more than 158,000 underwater acres, how much an infringement on recreation can 600 leased acres, in 10-acre plots, actually cause?

Minimal though it is, somehow such recreational groups as the Devon Yacht Club in East Hampton insist their sailing lessons were hindered by what they branded as navigational hazards from a nearby oyster farm. They sued the farmer, the Amagansett Oyster Co., last November. Never mind that the oyster farmer’s equipment, the subject of the yacht club’s complaint, passed muster with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, who by law decide what is or is not a navigational hazard.

It is no easy task to obtain a lease to grow shellfish here. One has to invest between $3,000 to $8,000 and go through an application process with the N.Y. State Suffolk County that can take up to three years. Still, the program has seen a resurgence in oyster farming since it started 10 years ago. Even in the face of increasing brown tide and rust tide (algae) blooms in the bay region, aquaculture has held its own.

But at a recent meeting of the county’s Aquaculture Lease Board, the Shelter Island Yacht Club filed written objections to virtually every proposed lease site in Gardiner’s Bay that the lease board was then considering. Proposed sites for leasing bay bottoms in Southold made the Peconic Bay Sailing Association just as agitated. Undaunted, the lease board found the complaints about shellfish farming to be baseless and granted the leases in these limited areas. Sadly, talk could then be heard of Article 78 lawsuits against the lease board itself.

Is the county asleep at the switch with their control of aquaculture? Like it or not, Suffolk County has been tasked with the responsibility to make this lease program work. Already in their hands for a decade, it’s time that the revival of this industry, and its contribution to the fabulous natural resource known as the Peconic Estuary, become a county priority. With only 600 acres in bay bottom cultivation in all these years, clearly Suffolk’s shellfish farming lease program moves at an inexcusably and discouragingly slow pace.

The county administration, with some help from the county legislature, proclaims big things about their plans for aquaculture in the bays, especially in press releases. It seems a ruse – empty words of comfort with no serious action. It brings to mind a convincing and disturbing case made in the book, “Winners Take All – the Elite Charade of Changing the World,” by Anand Giridhasadas. Countless instances are documented in this book where government “works” to energize private sector growth, but does just the opposite.

Suffolk’s shellfish farming plods through government regulation while county government all along assures us that, with their help, it will prosper. Why not take this great opportunity to encourage the younger generation to come forward? It’s an opportunity to address a sobering trend that “Winners Take All” reports: There are two-thirds less young people who own a business than in the 1980s.

Couldn’t Suffolk County use its expertise to plan these leases so that they will have minimal impact on recreation in the bays, and at the same time cut layers of red tape for future farmers just as has been done in neighboring states? The shellfish farmers who have already signed up for bay bottom leases are hard working entrepreneurs. They seek no handouts, and pay their own way. It’s time the county got the stakeholders together to make this work. Suffolk officials have to mediate the traditional rivalry between commercial and recreational interests to prevent the disruption of shellfish farming. There is literally plenty of room for both.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg