The Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved a 10-year extension of the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program (SCALP) in Peconic and Gardiners bays on March 2, implementing a series of new restrictions and protocols but keeping in place a program that has jumpstarted the aquaculture industry on the East End over the past 10 years.
After two years of review in which the area available to be leased throughout the estuary was pared back about 43 percent, sentiments remained heated at two hours-long public hearings before the legislature, on Dec. 15, 2020 and Feb. 2, 2021, in which oyster farmers begged the legislature to approve the extension of the program “without any gear restrictions or further reduction of the cultivation zone” and some sailers, yacht club representatives and baymen continued to take issue with oyster cultivation leases, saying they are a hazard to navigation and a private use of public resources, particularly when oysters are grown in floating cages higher up in the water column, which improves their distinctive flavors.
As of 2020, 810 acres of underwater lands in Peconic and Gardiners bays were leased to 58 shellfish farmers. The 10-year extension of the program would limit new oyster leases to 60 more acres per year, or 600 more acres over the course of the 10-year plan.
In the next 10 years, new leases would be reviewed by local review committees made up of a variety of stakeholders that have knowledge of the local waters.
Shellfish growers who spoke on Feb. 2 said they’d already given up a great deal in agreeing to the new plan, with many saying they’d already invested their life savings, sometimes on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, in gear and leases.
Will Peckham, of West Robins Oyster Company, pointed out that shellfish growers are using floating gear on just four of the current county lease sites, and added that the county had already limited lease areas to places in the bay that were not naturally productive for shellfish.
Members of the legislature also seemed fed up by the lengthy review.
“The county has given in and compromised and compromised over and over again,” said Legislator Tom Cilmi of District 10. “We’re at a point now where we have to get this done.
There’s no reason to prolong this any further. We’ve heard from the public over and over and over again. We’re never going to satisfy everybody 100 percent, and we’re not going to be able to keep moving the finish line to satisfy every concern.”
“We have to keep in mind this is peoples’ livelihoods,” said Legislator Sam Gonzalez of District 9.
“We want the program to survive and thrive,” said Legislator Bridget Fleming, who represents the South Fork’s second legislative district. “After two years of back and forth, we have found a balance of the interests. We want to make sure nobody walks away from this process saying we were given short shrift.”
“What you’ve heard is about types of gear and navigation. The best way to mitigate that is to have people with local knowledge on the review board. They understand the current heavy use of the bay, and they’re going to mitigate conflicts,” said Legislator Al Krupski of District 1 on the North Fork. “We need to have a diversity of a cross section of people on there who know the waterways.” —BY