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Woman gets her chance to be a shellfish farmer in Great South Bay

Aileen Ruddy will become a shellfish farmer in

Aileen Ruddy will become a shellfish farmer in the Great South Bay. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Aileen Ruddy has been waiting to farm oysters in the Great South Bay since she placed her name on an Islip Town waiting list six years ago. Now, she’ll be the first woman participating in the town’s bay bottom leasing program.

“I’m completely drawn to it,” Ruddy, 42, of Fire Island’s Fair Harbor, said in an interview. “The Great South Bay is my home,” she said, recalling memories of fishing and clamming on the water with her family. “If I can play a small part in being able to help the environment locally, that’s incredibly important to me.”

Despite having no experience growing shellfish, Ruddy is eager to learn. Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, the Islip native worked in event planning for an environmental nonprofit in Manhattan.

She will join two dozen baymen who lease plots of underwater land in the Great South Bay, where they cultivate oysters, clams, scallops and, through a pilot program, kelp. The Islip Town Board approved her lease on Jan. 14.

Established in 2012, the initiative now encompasses 125 acres. It was formed to stimulate shellfish farming, which rapidly declined due to overharvesting, decimating an entire industry and leading to water quality concerns.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, more than half of the clams consumed in the nation were once sourced from the Great South Bay, but harvest totals have dropped 93 percent over the past 25 years.

The leased parcels are home to more than 10 million oysters, each capable of filtering between 30 and 50 gallons of water per day, said town Department of Environmental Control Commissioner Martin Bellew. “It’s an incredible environmental benefit for the bay and for the town,” he said.

Town officials are close to obtaining a permit that would open an additional 1,500 acres of fertile bay bottom in the waters south of Heckscher Park in East Islip. The additional acreage could accommodate at least 10 hopeful shellfish farmers from the town’s waiting list, which has swelled to 134 names.

Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter said the town’s program is vital to the health of the bay. Officials are hoping to launch educational programs and student tours to boost awareness. “We’re dedicated to this and the development of this industry,” Carpenter said. “Our entire southern border of the town is on the water, so it’s important to educate that everybody can make a difference in preserving our environment and our water.”

Ruddy is hoping to begin farming the parcel, located in the waters off Sexton Island, in 2021 once permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DEC are in place. She plans to begin working on a nearby oyster farm this spring to get hands-on experience.  

Once they are mature, she’ll market the bivalves to local restaurants under the branded name Little Sister — a nod to women and her five older siblings. “I’m going to pour my heart and soul into this,” she said.

About the program:

  • Formed in 2012, the bay bottom program encompasses 125 acres of Great South Bay bottomlands that are leased out by 25 people.
  • The parcels range in size from one to five acres and are leased out by Islip Town for $795 per acre per year; a two-acre site costs $1,500 per year, according to the town Department of Environmental Control.
  • There are 134 names on a town waiting list.

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