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Suffolk lawmakers approve new aquaculture leases, rules

Chuck Westfall of Thatch Island Oysters stands on

Chuck Westfall of Thatch Island Oysters stands on the bow of his boat on May 21, 2018. Credit: Raychel Brightman

The Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday unanimously approved expanded rules for leasing hundreds of new acres of Peconic and Gardiners bays for aquaculture, amid concern by boaters that the program would limit recreational uses.

The county's aquaculture lease program, first approved by the legislature in 2009, has helped spawn a burgeoning and environmentally friendly oyster-farming industry on Long Island, with about 780 acres already leased to 55 different developers. Only around 300 of those acres are actively farmed, the county said.

But some recreational boat owners expressed concern that some oyster farms that use gear placed on the surface would pose obstacles and unnecessary hazards. Most of the opposition has come from yachters and boaters from the East End.

The measure approved Tuesday removed some contested areas, but continued to increase the size of the program though new leases.

"I think we've struck a balance here that honors both those interests," Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyack) said of recreation and aquaculture.

After more than two years of review and public hearings, Suffolk County reduced the total acreage that can be eligible for aquaculture to just over 17,000 acres from a current 29,969.

The plan eliminated some areas that boaters said posed the biggest conflicts.

Total acreage in Peconic and Gardiners bays is about 158,000.

Under the new rules, the county would lease no more than 600 additional acres for the next 10 years, or no more than 60 per year.

The rules gradually would increase the cost for use of the lease program, from a current $150 per year for a 10-acre lease, to about $1,000 annually by the sixth through tenth years.

The legislation would require farmers to more clearly mark their lease areas with four buoys of at least 36-inches in height in each corner. The buoys must be radar-reflective and visible from at least a nautical mile away.

The program also would provide more avenues for opponents of specific leasing plans to air complaints through an expanded review by a lease review board of nine members. The board currently has three members.

The new board members would include representatives of each of the five East End towns.

Chuck Westfall, owner of Patch Island Oysters on the Great South Bay and president of the Long Island Oyster Growers Assoc., an industry group, said he and his members generally favored the changes.

But Westfall said he still had concerns about the overall reduction in acreage.

"There’s no real conflict with floating gear," Westfall said.

Opponents of the aquaculture program include author and ecologist Carl Safina. In public comments, Safina took issue with assertions by some growers that sailors could learn to pilot around floating cages.

Safina also disputed the notion that oysters produce an "essential" food for people.

"The fact is, no one needs oysters," he wrote. "Oysters aren’t potatoes, corn or cod by any stretch. Oysters don’t stave off famine. No parent worries that their children will go to bed without oysters. Oysters are a boutique snack, served mainly at high end parties before the real food."

Westfall called Safina’s argument "absurd."

Westfall said Long Island oyster farmers are struggling this year because the COVID-19 pandemic has vastly limited or shuttered restaurants from Montauk to New York City that are their primary customers.

"We are waiting for Manhattan to open up," Westfall said. "I think there’s great pent-up demand. We’re hoping for a big summer."

Under the county program, new lease holders also would need to meet eligibility requirements.

Farmers would have to either have aquaculture experience or be a commercial bay fisher, provide an aquaculture fishing plan or show they’ve taken a course in aquaculture.

New lease holders would have to provide a survey of their underwater lands.

Aquaculture farmers, some of whom want to grow kelp beds on the properties, also must receive state and federal approvals for floating gear, including by the Coast Guard.

Also Tuesday, the legislature:

  • Extended the deadline for the county Fair Housing Task Force to issue recommendations from Feb. 28 to Dec. 31 because of pandemic-related delays. The panel, comprised of Suffolk County legislators and housing and human rights experts, was created in response to a Newsday investigation that uncovered widespread evidence of discrimination by Long Island real estate agents.
  • Voted to require donors of gifts to the county to identify themselves and the value of their gifts on mandatory forms, and attest the gifts come with "no strings attached," bill sponsor Legis. Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) said. Past gifts have included bicycles and personal protective equipment.
  • Approved $500,000 in spending to plan a new juvenile detention facility in Yaphank to house 16 and 17-year-olds. Suffolk sheriff’s office Chief Michael Sharkey said officials plan to renovate a building at the Yaphank Correctional Facility site to comply with state law that raised the age for prosecution as an adult to 18. Costs will be reimbursed by New York State, according to the resolution.
  • Approved $9.4 million in technology and cybersecurity improvements, including $6.7 million to replace the county’s payroll and personnel software.
  • Voted to appoint Mark P. Haubner to the Council on Environmental Quality and Daniel Flynn to the Suffolk County Planning Commission to represent Southampton Town.

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