A public hearing on the final draft of the Great...

A public hearing on the final draft of the Great Cove Watershed Management Plan is set for Monday. Above, the sun rises in the reflection of Great South Bay at the end of Roe Avenue in Patchogue. (Jan. 17, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

Islip Town officials are hoping a new plan to lease part of Great South Bay's bottom for aquatic farming will help restore its ecosystem and its once booming shellfish population.

But critics say the plan will hurt the area's remaining baymen by privatizing an area that has remained public for more than 200 years.

The initiative, unanimously approved by the town board earlier this year, will lease 50 of the 15,000 acres of the bay owned by the town, said councilman and program creator John Edwards. So far, the town has leased about 10 acres to five people or groups, he said.

Lessees will pay an annual fee of $750 per acre up to five acres, and will be required to purchase shellfish seed from the town's shellfish hatchery in East Islip. Lessees hope to begin farming the bay by early summer, Edwards said.

"This project is one small step in our overall efforts to improve the quality of the bay," Edwards said.

As an example, Edwards said, oysters farmed by aquaculturists will remove contaminants that have led to the bay's demise, he said. "The greater number of shellfish, the better the quality of water," he said.

Carl LoBue, a marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy, said such oysters might increase the bay's shellfish population overall by releasing reproductive material which could fertilize other oysters in the bay.

Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan praised "private citizens engaging in aquaculture and trying to assist in this effort to bring back the bay."

But opponents say the town is trying to monetize public property. "For 200 years it's been public lands," said Greg LoVece, 57, of Islip, who has been fishing and harvesting shellfish in Great South Bay for more than 43 years. "I don't need to see people coming in and chopping it up."

LoVece said the town should focus on cleaning the water through such steps as improving waste treatment systems rather than relying on the natural filters of shellfish. Until the water is cleaner, he said, growing oysters "isn't doable."

Bill Hamilton, 58, vice president of Brookhaven Baymen's Association, also harvests in Great South Bay. "It would be like taking and leasing out areas in a park and now all of a sudden you can't go there," he said. Hamilton said the program will make life harder for existing baymen because they will spend more money on fuel trying to avoid the leased plots.

Edwards said he disagrees with the baymen, adding that because the program affects a small portion of the bay it "isn't going to have any impact on the shellfish harvesters."

LoBue said the program won't solve all of the bay's problems "but it's another tool."

Douglas Winter Sr., 50, of West Islip, two brothers and two others have leased two plots from the town, hoping to farm 10 acres in all. For Winter -- a construction company project manager who has been taking oyster-growing classes for three years -- the project is a chance to help restore the bay he remembers as a child.

"I think it's going to be good, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun."

Latest videos