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Century-old shellfish business thrives in Bayville

Jeremiah Relyea, 32, has worked at Frank M.

Jeremiah Relyea, 32, has worked at Frank M. Flower & Sons shellfish hatchery in Bayville since he was a senior in high school. He now manages the oyster farming part of the business. (July 18, 2013) (Credit: Tara Conry)

On a sweltering July morning, the Frank M. Flowers & Sons shellfish hatchery in Bayville is buzzing with activity. Riding atop a scow on Mill Neck Creek, a pair of workers haul eight 4-foot-high wooden stacks to a nearby dock. Then, one by one, the stacks, which each contain trays of clams, are lifted onto the deck above using a motorized hoist system.

The sound of running water is a constant on the deck, as the clams are placed into a large machine, called the screener, which cleans and sorts them based on their size.

“They grow at different rates,” says Thomas Ferraro, 59, a marine biologist who oversees the spawning and rearing of clams at the hatchery.

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Ferraro picks up a handful of small, 3-month-old clams from a tray that has already run through the screener. “In a perfect world, this is all we’d bring up,” he said, lamenting the usual seaweed, steamers and other "fouling" that usually has to be removed.

On the other side of the hatchery, the same process is happening for the oysters that Frank M. Flowers & Sons also farms, only using a large screener.

A shirtless Jeremiah Relyea, 32, who manages the oyster spawning and rearing, holds up a batch of oysters that were spawned in March at the hatchery. While the smaller oysters will be placed back into the floating up-well system, or the “flupsy,” after they’ve been cleaned, these 5-month-old ones are ready to be put on the seeding beds in Oyster Bay Harbor. They’ll stay there until next spring, when they will be moved to a harvest bed until they are ready to be harvested next fall.

“It takes about 18 months to grow an oyster and about four years for a clam,” says Relyea, a Bayville native who studied biology at Hofstra University.

Relyea, who now lives in Smithtown, has been working at the hatchery since high school. His father, David Relyea, 66, along with his uncle, Dwight Relyea, 59, and a third owner, Joe Zahtila, 67, purchased the business in 1996 from the Flower family, whose family has been harvesting oysters in Mill Neck Creek since 1887.

David and Dwight Relyea’s great uncle was one of Frank Flowers’ three sons, and they had been working for the company for nearly 40 years when they were given the opportunity to purchase it.

Zahtila, a Bayville native, had also been working at the hatchery, starting out as a deckhand, since 1965, three years after it was built.

The hatchery spawns anywhere from 40 to 70 million oysters and 50 to 60 million clams each year. Fifteen to 30 mature oysters spawn between 6 million and 15 million.

They start breeding and incubating them in February in tanks inside what Jeremiah Relyea calls “the nursery school,” keeping the water temperature at 80 degrees and the room temperature even higher.

“We sort of simulate summer inside,” he said.

Then, as the water temperature in the creek rises in the spring, they can start “planting” the clams and oysters on the floating trays once they are mature enough.

Once they move on to the beds in Oyster Bay Harbor, where the company owns 1,800 acres, they become Dwight Relyea’s responsibility. His team tends to the beds, harvests the shellfish and packages it for distribution. They also try to protect the clams and oysters from predators, but in a given year, the company loses anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the shellfish they spawn.

“We grow so many to account for that loss,” Jeremiah Relyea adds.

He said people are often surprised that there even exists such a process to grow clams and oysters.

“People come here and say, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” he said. “They never imagine that something on this scale would go on.”

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