During the Oyster Bay Town Board meeting on Tuesday, there was a public hearing to consider changes to an existing provision that dictates the licensing of town-owned underwater lands for the benefit of the environment in restoring the bay.
The proposed amendment to the code would provide the town, with the recommendation of the Department of Environmental Resources, the ability to issue licenses as the Town Board may deem appropriate, to permit aquaculture, the cultivation of aquatic organisms in a controlled environment, in marine waters within the town’s jurisdiction, according to Town Attorney Frank Scalera.
“This change in the ordinance and the pivot towards aquaculture will put us in line with other municipalities on Long Island like the Town of Islip, the Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County, who all have robust agriculture programs and licensing programs,” Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said. “We look to those municipalities as a model of where we can look to go.”
Additionally, with the proposed amendment, the Town Board expects to now hold license holders responsible for any environmental damage of the bay’s bottom and the shellfish, an important distinction not currently included in the town code.
“The changes to the licensing process [will] include many safeguards that will actually enhance and protect our environment,” Saladino said.
While the Town Board hopes the proposed changes to the town code will have a positive impact on the marine environment of the bay, some are worried about the vague definition and parameters of the new changes.
“The new license program cannot be considered routine,” said Robert Wormley, a member of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association. “The town should go back to the drawing board and flesh out a program with defined limits and geographic scope. Floating gear, productivity surveys, large areas of cultivation and harvest methods, [all part of the proposed amendment] create a lot of controversy. These issues can be appropriately dealt with by developing best management practices upfront, building them into the code as administrative guidance developed through a public process in the context of a secret type one action review process.”
The update to the town code is the most recent in a string of actions by the town to protect the environment, especially when it comes to its marine life. In 2019, Oyster Bay opened a new shellfish hatchery with the goal of populating Oyster Bay Harbor with 2 million more clams and oysters, generating both economic benefits for the shellfish industry and environmental benefits that include improved water quality, since each shellfish filters gallons of water per day.
“The town has taken several important steps in working towards a healthier estuary including opening a hatchery, which we’re very pleased to see is being expanded,” Heather Johnson, executive director of Friends of the Bay, said. “The town also identified the need for additional shelter sanctuaries, and drafted a guideline for water resources management strategy. Shellfish sanctuaries, with no harvesting or transplanting from them, are one of the key ways to ensure there will be stock in the bay for the future.”
This year, the town plans to plant roughly 10 million seedlings, 10 times the amount planted just two years ago. By growing these seedlings to a more sustainable size, the survival rate for clams and oysters has increased to a rate of 60 percent. Those that don’t survive or are not harvested still provide benefits to the environment as a food source for other marine life in the bay.
“We can all agree that now is the time to rethink how agriculture can be practiced in a way that respects the Oyster Bay heritage, contributes to restoration of water quality and continues to provide a livelihood for commercial harvesters,” Johnson said.
“Protecting our environment, providing for a more progressive and scientific process has been one of our highest priorities in terms of town policy,” Saladino said.
While the board did not vote on the proposed changes to the town code, members asserted that they would be a step in the right direction in marine environment protection in Oyster Bay.
“Clearly, we’re environmentalists,” Saladino said. “The accomplishments this administration and our town workforce has made over the past four years are immense, and it’s a long list . . . we want our [licensing] program to be way better than Nassau County’s and other municipalities, and continue . . . to work on a process that’s inclusive, that allows for more types of aquaculture than the town has seen.”
Now is the time to consider changing the codes or improving them, he added.