Ted Bucci was looking to make a career change, so the East End housepainter headed to South Carolina, to study history. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Lander University in 1996, and in 2003 graduated with a master’s in education from Dowling College in Oakdale.
Then came the hard part.
“I tried to land a teaching job at an East End school,” said Bucci, 58, of Southold. “It was impossible. I did a whole lot of substitute teaching, but that didn’t pay the bills.”
Bucci eventually found a job at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, where he taught environmental science from 2004 to 2007 to juvenile offenders.
“I brought the students to the marine science center in Southold and that’s where I saw what was being done to raise oysters,” Bucci said. “And I thought, ‘There is economic opportunity in this. I can make a living in the oyster business.’ ”
So in 2011, Bucci launched Harbor Lights Oyster Company, a Southold firm that sells oysters to wholesalers and restaurants year-round. For now Bucci is the only employee, but sons Billy and Chris help out a lot and his friend Arnie Feldman has helped market the oysters to local restaurants and wholesalers. “I will be hiring a few people this year and hopefully some more the following,” he said.
Good thing, as Harbor Lights is growing quickly. Bucci said he marketed about 100,000 oysters in 2015, and expects to be able to sell 350,000 this year. His mobile hatchery, when completed this year, is expected to produce millions of oyster seeds, which he said will help propel him to market 1 million oysters in 2017.
Bucci, who constructed the boat, rafts and mobile hatchery said he has always had a talent for building and fixing things. He learned about aquaculture by reading and attending SPAT, or Southold Project in Aquaculture Training, classes at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
The East Coast Shellfish Growers Association said oysters clean water, enhance water clarity and remove nitrogen. Bucci said farming oysters by way of cages and rafts is a more environmentally friendly and responsible way to collect them than past methods. “You can imagine the destruction and death to aquatic life dragging for oysters has versus pulling up a cage full of oysters,” he said.
Bucci said he buys his seeds from hatcheries in East Islip and Southold. The process of growing them starts when they’re placed into a floating upweller system, which looks like an 8-foot-by-20-foot dock. Under the docks, which are stationed in Greenport Harbor, are plastic bins, a trough and a pump. On the bottom of every bin is mesh, and the oyster seeds are placed on top of the mesh. The pump then draws water through the mesh.
“By doing this, you’re feeding the seeds at a rapid rate, thus increasing their growth drastically,” Bucci said.
The upweller system has been used for many years, but its prohibitive cost — at least $7,000, Bucci said — and required waterfront location limit its use. Bucci said he augmented the standard design, saving thousands of dollars. He uses a combination of the raft and cage system to harvest oysters, which he said is more economical, less labor-intensive and allows him to access and process his oysters even during inclement weather.
Once the seeds grow to about an inch, which can happen in about four weeks, Bucci removes the seeds and puts them in growout bags, which are hard, plastic bags with holes in them. The growout bags are placed onto hanging cages underneath Bucci’s aquaculture raft, where pumps keep the water flowing, and the seeds growing.
Once the oysters grow to about two inches, Bucci moves them to Southold Bay by removing them from the bags and putting about 1,000 oysters in each layer of a cage, which has four layers. Stacks of cages are put on his boat, which he calls “The Pearl,” and taken to his Southold Bay lease site and placed on the bay’s floor by a crane.
“I’ll wait for them to mature,” Bucci said. “Oysters technically become dormant once the water hits below 40 degrees. Once they grow to a certain size, we pull them out and bring them back to a raft that contains only market-size oysters. About one raft can hold about 200,000 market-size oysters and we have three of those rafts in Greenport Harbor.”
Bucci said he currently uses one raft to hold market-size oysters.
“As we grow the company, I have permits in place to add up to 10 more rafts,” he said.
Bucci added that Harbor Light’s success has gone beyond his wildest dreams.
“I started this because I thought I could make a little money,” Bucci said, noting that he works year-round, averaging about 60-80 hours a week except in the winter, when he scales back to about 40-60 hours a week. “Instead, sure I’m making money, but also helping the environment . . . and having fun doing it.”