By Greg Wehner
After years of trying to get permission from the State Department of Environmental Conservation, Stony Brook University scientists got the green light at the end of October to install the first permitted oyster reef on Long Island, and began the project this week in the waters off Quogue.
Hundreds of bags filled with shells covered in oyster spat, or juvenile oysters, are being stacked in Shinnecock Bay, just east of the Quogue Canal, in an effort to find out if shellfish can reproduce in the bay.
Bivalve Restoration Specialist Mike Doall, who is helping to coordinate the project, said the reef will measure approximately 10 meters by 5 meters, and will consist of more than 600,000 oysters when it is done.
“These are our building blocks,” Mr. Doall said on Thursday, November 30, while pointing to a bag of shells with spat while standing in stomach-high water in a wet suit and yellow raincoat. He explained that the reef being installed is completely experimental, but will allow him and the rest of the scientists involved to study trends with the oysters—things like growth rate, mortality and disease.
Dr. Christopher Gobler, a marine science professor at Stony Brook University and one of the East End’s most respected water quality experts, said groups had applied in the past for permission to create oyster reefs in the Shinnecock Bay but were unsuccessful. The difference this time, Dr. Gobler said, is that he and his team presented a full-time monitoring program.
“We want to make sure the data is collected,” Dr. Gobler said.
According to a statement from the DEC on Monday, “The permit will enable Stony Brook University to conduct a demonstration project to obtain quantifiable information on the success of the oyster reef and any water quality improvements that may result from the reef.”
With temperatures dropping as winter approaches, predators like crabs aren’t as active, which should provide an ideal environment for the oysters to thrive through spring.
Dr. Gobler said the DEC granted permission to install four oyster reefs, adding that an additional reef will be placed near the one the crews were working on Thursday, and the other two will be placed a little farther east.
The western portion of Shinnecock Bay has historically been hit with brown tides which have harmed the populations of clams, but Dr. Gobler said the oysters should be fine there.
“We chose this part because the oysters should do well here, even better than clams,” he said. “Oysters seem to deal with the brown tide better than clams.”
Ultimately, the goal is to improve the water quality and shellfish populations in Shinnecock Bay.
The big picture, Mr. Doall said, consists of a hard shell clam program that is already a full blown part of the Shinnecock Bay Restoration program, explaining that it is “beyond experimental” at this point.
Oysters are another part of the restoration program, as is restoring the seagrass, according to Dr. Gobler.
But it all has to be done in steps, and with the oyster reef, this is the first step.
“The first ideal outcome is doing it and getting data,” Dr. Gobler said. With the data, they’ll see if it creates an environment where the oysters can reproduce, bring in more oysters and continue to grow.
“The aim of this is to get as much data as possible to see how it works as a restoration program,” he added.
Because the location of the oyster reef is located on Southampton Town Trustee-owned bay bottoms, the Trustees assisted with the facilitation of the necessary permits as well as the locations where the reefs could be placed.
The Town Trustees have worked with Stony Brook University in the past, and according to Town Trustee Scott Horowitz, it’s a valued partnership.
“They have done an excellent job helping to enhance the resources held by the Trustees for the benefit of the people of the Town of Southampton,” Mr. Horowitz said. He added that Dr. Gobler and his staff have been instrumental in educating the public on water quality issues and what can be done to have a positive impact on the environment.
The areas that were designated for the reefs are going to be patrolled by the Town Bay Constables, according to Mr. Horowitz, to ensure shellfish are not removed from the area.
Still, he said, the addition of reefs could create additional habitats for fish, and if placed outside of Shinnecock Inlet, could provide recreational opportunities.
“Reefs are a good project, as the creation of beneficial habitats is a critical component of the food chain,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Filtering bivalves also work wonders and, hopefully, the conditions come together for successful spawning.”