Bellport Bay, looking west of the Bellport Marina, where Brookhaven...

Bellport Bay, looking west of the Bellport Marina, where Brookhaven Town officials planned to rebuild the bay's shellfish population. The plan is postponed until a water quality study is completed. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Brookhaven Town officials are postponing a plan to expand a shellfish restoration area in Bellport Bay until a water quality study is completed.

The recent natural closure of a Fire Island inlet may affect the bay's suitability for growing shellfish, which could in turn affect the proposal to double the size of an existing two-acre restoration area about 30 yards off Bellport, Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said Friday.

Romaine told Newsday the restoration area may be moved east. The study should be completed by spring, he said.

“We’re looking for areas that regularly get flushed [by ocean water] and cleaned. The eastern part of the bay has been much cleaner than the western,” he said. “The reason Bellport Bay has sprung back to life was because of the inlet … [but] that inlet has now closed. We’re looking to see what that means for water quality before we commit to a restoration area that may not work.”

Shellfishing  is banned in the existing restoration area to allow the growth of young oysters. Baymen had opposed  expanding the restricted area, saying it would affect their ability to make a living amid a steep drop in the amount of available shellfish to harvest.

Thomas Schultz, director of restoration for nonprofit Friends of Bellport Bay, told Newsday he was disappointed with the town's decision, adding Brookhaven has generally been supportive of restoration efforts. The nonprofit manages the existing area and would have managed the additional two acres.

"Shellfish restoration efforts are not dependent on having an inlet nearby, and the faster we can get to critical mass, the faster we will be able to save and restore our precious bay bottom habitats," he said in a text message.

Schultz has said the proposed area in Bellport Bay is perfect for shellfish restoration because of its hard, rocky surface, but a poor location for fishing .

The inlet has been closely studied by marine scientists and fishermen since it was opened 10 years ago by Superstorm Sandy. Scientists believe the inlet replenishes the bay with fresh ocean water, improving salinity, which is good for shellfish.

Ocean currents over the past decade gradually deposited enough sediment to close the inlet, making the bay "potentially" less desirable for shellfish restoration, Christopher Gobler, a professor in Stony Brook University's school of marine and atmospheric sciences, told Newsday. 

The inlet could reopen periodically in severe storms such as nor'easters and hurricanes, he said.

Robyn Silvestri, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Great South Bay, which supports shellfish restoration, said the inlet's future is unpredictable.

“That’s really up to Mother Nature: She opened it, she closed it. ... It remains to be seen whether it opens again,” Silvestri told Newsday. “The opening we had was an amazing benefit to Bellport Bay.”

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