The Hampton Bays based non-profit water quality advocate Peconic Baykeeper, with the support of Advanced Wastewater Solutions’ “Save the Bays” initiative, has launched a Community Oyster Restoration Program in Southampton’s Cold Spring Pond. This floating oyster nursery will rear 80,000 oysters annually to be used directly for restoration efforts in Southampton Town Waters with maintenance and seeding sessions open to residents looking to get involved in hands-on marine science and shellfish restoration efforts. Baykeeper and Southampton native Peter Topping has long dreamed of getting such a project underway in Southampton Town after spending close to eight years working with the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery’s successful aquaculture program. “Oysters are champion filter feeders that are important to the ecological health of our estuaries as well as the cultural traditions of the East End. The more shellfish that we can grow and return to the water, the better”, says Topping.
The ultimate goal will be to create more of these small-scale projects in other local harbors with the “Spat” (baby oysters) coming from New York State-licensed shellfish hatcheries.
While Peconic Baykeeper has had permission from the Southampton Town Trustees to implement this program since last year, funding to get this project underway has been a challenge for the organization due to COVID-19 diverting donations and grant funding elsewhere. “We were looking to put this project on hold for another year when we got a call from Advanced Wastewater Solutions offering to help us out”, says Topping. Advanced Wastewater Solutions (“AWS”) is the Long Island distributor for Fuji Clean, the global and local leader in nitrogen-reducing onsite treatment systems. AWS, which is owned and operated by Southampton natives Bryan and Kevin McGowin, had been looking for an opportunity to sponsor a stewardship program to promote local water quality as part of its “Save the Bays” initiative. “The first call we made was to Pete, since the Baykeeper’s mission aligns perfectly with what AWS and Fuji Clean are trying to do, which is protect our local waters for future generations to enjoy”, says AWS President Bryan McGowin. “Growing up out here, we’ve seen the degradation of our local waterbodies firsthand, with algae blooms, fish and shellfish die-offs and beach closures becoming an increasingly common occurrence, and we want our kids to have the same opportunity to enjoy our beautiful local waters as we were given”, he adds.
Peconic Baykeeper has long been a proponent of installing advanced, nitrogen-reducing onsite wastewater systems to address what has become recognized as a leading threat to water quality on the East End. Last year, Peconic Baykeeper’s Septic Improvement Program initiative led to the installation of Fuji Clean systems in the North Sea Beach Colony and their home office in Hampton Bays. “AWS stepped up by offering these systems at reduced rates for the project, and have proven to be a key ally to Baykeeper in our pollution-reduction initiatives. We aren’t satisfied with talking about nitrogen pollution reduction, we want to actually reduce the pollution” says Peconic Baykeeper Executive Director Sean O’Neill.
Removing nitrogen and other nutrient loads once they become integrated into our local waters however, is a much more difficult problem to solve and giving nature a leg up through the aquaculture of both shellfish and seaweeds is increasingly being touted as one way to help address this problem. “If we can inspire marine stewardship by creating a hands-on opportunity for people of all ages to be involved in restoring our waterways, then this is a win-win for both our community and the environment”, says Topping. McGowin adds, “While our company focuses on removing nitrogen pollution from its source by replacing antiquated cesspools and septic tanks with the low-nitrogen Fuji Clean system, this is an issue that will require a multi-pronged approach and aquaculture projects like the Baykeeper’s Oyster Restoration Program are a key part of that.”
In 2018, Peconic Baykeeper launched a Commercial Oyster Aquaculture Program in Great Peconic Bay, which licenses 50 acres of bottomland owned by the organization to carefully vetted commercial oyster farmers. With those oysters eventually going to market, creating a tandem program geared for restoration while allowing for public participation was a natural fit for the organization. Unlike the commercial program where oyster cagesrest on the bottom in deeper water, the new oyster nursery uses floating cages and is readily accessible from shore and tended by hand. Peconic Baykeeper is currently permitted to have ten floating cages in place and met with the Town Trustees to determine a suitable location. “We want to be respectful of our many waterway users while also fulfilling our mission to improve water quality and educate the public”, says Topping. While the cages are floating, the area beneath them is still open to shellfish harvesting for those with a town permit and all gear will be removed from the water later in the season after this year’s crop of oysters is seeded.
Maintenance sessions for the Community Oyster Program will begin in late July and take place bi-weekly and then weekly until mid-October. Each approximately two-hour long session will take place outdoors and include a project overview, as well as size grading and stocking of oysters. Participants are welcome to come to one or multiple sessions although participation will be limited to promote safe social distancing guidelines. Those interested in learning more and reserving a spot with the program should contact Peconic Baykeeper.