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Bid for growth of oyster gardens to help water quality

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino joined local oyster gardeners on Monday ahead of a vote to create more community oyster gardens across the town's North Shore. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Twice a week, several Laurel Hollow residents wade into the waters off their local beach to clean and measure more than 1,000 oysters.

They volunteer with the Laurel Hollow Community Oyster Gardening program, started in 2017 by the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Protection Committee to teach the basic skills of oyster growing and create a self-sustaining oyster reef in the watershed.

On Tuesday, Town of Oyster Bay officials are expected to vote to create more community oyster gardens in several locations, including Laurel Hollow and Oyster Bay Cove.

While the oyster industry is a large contributor to Long Island's economy, the drive to expand this program isn't economic, it's environmental.

“We’re doing more than ever to improve water quality," Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino said at a news conference Monday at Laurel Hollow Village Hall.

Because of population and the high volume of water recreation, the water quality of Long Island’s harbors, inlets and other bodies of water fluctuates.

Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they feed on suspended matter in the water, which helps to clean and improve water quality. Oysters and clams, the oyster’s smooth-shelled, non-pearl-producing cousin, can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day in the feeding process, Saladino said.

“The science is deep, but the results are evident. It cleans our water and makes a tremendous difference in our harbors," Saladino said.

Deb Perrone, a resident of Laurel Hollow and volunteer oyster gardener, said Laurel Hollow Beach hasn't been closed because of poor water quality for two of the three years the program has been operating.

Volunteers from the Oyster Bay environmental protection organization Friends of the Bay and the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Protection Committee, along with local officials and area residents, tend twice a week to more than 170 oyster cages suspended in the inner harbor off Laurel Hollow.

“This program was started, not necessarily to grow oysters, but to use oysters as a mechanism to get people to take two of the most valuable assets — their time, and a little bit of their money — to invest it back into the harbor,” said Rob Crafa, coordinator of the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Protection Committee.

Government officials, community groups such as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and church groups, and local residents sponsor the cages at $200 each. Guided by local scientists and academics, some tend to cages themselves, while others rely upon volunteers.

Every year, nearly 1,000 young oysters are placed in each cage, where they can grow protected from predators. When the oysters are large enough to protect themselves, they are moved into public waters. The program expects to raise 85,000 oysters in 2019.

If the initiative to expand the community oyster gardening program is approved Tuesday by the Town of Oyster Bay, the town will oversee three areas of oyster conservation totaling 50 acres.

“We want this to spread to every community,” Laurel Hollow Mayor Dan DeVita said. “Not only on the North Shore, but to every community in the watershed.”

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