For nearly a quarter-century, the Town of Islip has operated its own shellfish hatchery, in an effort to spur growth in the clam and oyster populations in the Great South Bay.
But with a tight budget planned for next year, town officials are looking to trim expenses, and the East Islip hatchery's annual $650,000 budget may be the fiscal fat they cut.
The town board is considering a range of proposals that include privatizing the hatchery and ramping up oyster spawning.
"We seem to be spending dollar after dollar, but the surveys seem to be showing the existence of hard shells seem to be getting smaller and smaller," said Councilman Anthony S. Senft Jr. "Maybe we can take a look at this and do this more cost effectively and still accomplish the goal that hard clams still remain in the Great South Bay."
Senft plans to seek proposals from private companies and educational entities to take over the day-to-day operations at the hatchery in what could be either a privately run entity or a public-private partnership. "Because of our fiscal constraints, the town board has to be open to consider change to each and every program," Senft said.
Islip's hatchery, one of several municipal-run operations on Long Island, produces 20 million to 40 million seed clams and a much smaller number of seed oysters annually in the Great South Bay.
It also harvests and sells shellfish. But in recent years, the hatchery has only sold about $100,000 in shellfish annually, and Councilman John C. Cochrane Jr. has led the push to increase hatchery revenue. Cochrane says oyster production is a key winning strategy for the hatchery, and already the facility has increased its oyster breeding.
Cochrane also worked with state officials to allow the town to begin leasing about 3,000 acres of the bay bottom near the hatchery to shellfish farmers, a revenue stream that Cochrane says has the potential to bring in more than $2 million annually.
Eric Hofmeister, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Control, which oversees the hatchery, said, "It's clear that the amount of hard shell clams in the Great South Bay has diminished. The million dollar question is why it hasn't recovered."
He added, "I don't think any members of the town board want to create any detriment to the environment. The program will run in a matter that's most conscious to the budgetary concerns in this financial environment while still balancing the obligations to the environment."
Councilman Steven J. Flotteran said he's open to all of the proposals. "We have fine people running the program right now, but maybe a nonprofit or a profit business could do it at a higher level," he said.