Frank M. Flower & Sons, a commercial shellfishing company, has leased roughly 1,400 acres of underwater land from the Town of Oyster Bay since 1994. The company’s 30-year lease will expire in 2024, which prompted the town to issue a request for new proposals in June. Flower, along with Mitch Kramer and Thomas Thornton, Oyster Bay residents from the Oyster Bay Shellfish Company and the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association, independent baymen, submitted applications to the town. All were recently denied.
George Baptista Jr., the town’s deputy commissioner of environmental resources, said the applications were deficient because they did not contain financial specifics. The town, he said, wants to be certain that whoever it grants a lease to is financially sound and can generate revenue. “The submission process has changed,” Baptista said, “to protect the taxpayer.”
The town’s new RFP allows for 800 acres of underwater land to be divided into six areas to be fished separately. The maximum acreage that could be leased to one company would be 700 acres, instead of 1,400 as in the previous lease. The purpose, the town said, is to encourage competition among shellfishing companies.
Baptista said the three contenders who submitted proposals were not disqualified, and could resubmit. And the town’s RFP will not be scrapped. “It was fashioned to receive as many options as possible to harvest shellfish,” he said. “I’m not sure if the acreage will change. Part of the intent of the RFP was to get alternatives to dredging and raking the bottom of the bay — off-bottom agriculture.”
When he received his denial letter from the town, Thornton said, no deficiencies were noted. And his company’s method would be off-bottom agriculture.
“We saw this as an opportunity to do something new,” he said. “The juvenile oysters would grow in bags or cages, which does not disturb the bay bottom like dredging does. The South Bay and Peconic do this now.”
Baptista also said the town would like to expand its areas for conservation management, a spawners sanctuary. Although it would reduce public land for shellfishing, the town believes it is critical to restore clams and oysters to the bay, he said. This area would be off limits.
The board of directors at Friends of the Bay, a nonprofit that advocates protecting the harbor, wrote in a statement that the town’s decision to begin creation of a bay management plan before it makes decisions on issuing new licenses, permits or leases for large scale commercial shellfishing is a major plus.
“The town’s decision to reject the initial RFP responses reverses a cart-before-the-horse situation,” the statement said. “The bay management plan has to look at more than shellfishing and needs to be a science-based study that addresses the long-standing protection and health of the bay environment and looks at issues such as runoff, cesspools, development regulations, habitat loss, etc.”
Flower’s attorney, James Cammarata, said he did not have any information on why the town rejected the company’s proposal, and added that until he did, he would be unable to comment.
Doug Rodgers, vice president of NOBBA, said he had not heard why its proposal was denied, either. He thought it might be due to technicalities or deficiencies.
“Mitch and Tom’s group had the most complete proposal and even theirs was not accepted,” Rodgers said. “It’s strange. When we went to one of our meetings with the town they seemed content with what we were proposing but asked for more information on what we would like.”
But the next two meetings were cancelled, Rodgers said. Then NOBBA received the letter that it was denied. “We would like to know if we can move forward with a business plan but we can’t move forward without the lease. It’s like you have a business plan for a restaurant but you don’t have the building for the restaurant.”
Friends of the Bay’s statement said that the town’s decision to reject all of the proposals delays a decision on future large-scale shellfish harvesting in the bay.
“That means that Frank M. Flower & Sons, which says it has not operated its Bayville hatchery for a year because of the presence of predators in the bay and uncertainty over its future once the current lease expires in 2024, will now continue with its declared intention to not put seed shellfish into the bay (other than indirectly through the small amount it is required to give to the town for its own seeding program under its town lease) for a longer period.” the statement read.
Flower has not seeded the harbor this year with 1 million clam seeds, as was required under its current lease. Baptista said the town was working on an arrangement crafting an official request and would send it to Flower this week.
The new RFP requires 1,500 clam seeds per licenses acre. The town is not requiring a hatchery. The reason, Baptista said, is that the town does not want to get involved in running someone’s business.
Thornton said he was concerned about the harbor. “There is a real crisis in respect to oysters in Oyster Bay,” he said. “We have an iconic bay and are firmly committed to returning oysters to Oyster Bay. What’s going on now is not working.”
He added that the situation was graver than residents probably realize. “The oysters sold at the Oyster Festival for the past few years have been brought in from Connecticut,” he said. “We don’t have them here.”