Gregg Rivara, aquaculture specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension, plants baby oysters...

Gregg Rivara, aquaculture specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension, plants baby oysters in the Bellport Bay on July 27. Rivara said the oysters, as they grow, will "knit" themselves into a reef that will help protect the shoreline. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Someday, Bellport Bay may be Long Island's second oyster bay.

That's the dream of a Bellport nonprofit that plans to plant 1 million oysters this year — and 30 million over the next decade — in waters off the South Shore village.

Amid government-issued heat advisories and blustery breezes that kicked up whitecapped waves, a half-dozen volunteers waded a few feet offshore last Thursday and planted the first of 500,000 baby bivalves that will be deposited at the end of Bellport's South Howells Point Road.

The effort was a low-tech attempt to address one of Long Island's most vexing problems — the loss of oysters and clams and the once-thriving industry they spawned more than a century ago.

“It’s our job to take care of the place we live, or the place we play," said Thomas Schultz, 57, director of water operations for the nonprofit Friends of Bellport Bay. The group's volunteers are among many Long Islanders from Montauk to Manhasset involved in efforts to save local waters and restore shellfish habitat.

"Bellport Bay is a place where I’ve always had much pleasure from," Schultz said, "so I feel it’s my duty to protect this place that has given me so much, so that my children and their children can have the benefit of a healthy and viable ecosystem.”

Local officials describe such seeding programs as vital to the health of bays, noting that oysters serve as prodigious natural filters that remove harmful nitrogen from the water.

Long Island’s once-thriving oyster industry — which stretched from Oyster Bay in Nassau County to the East End and Great South Bay — declined four decades ago, largely due to pollution and overfishing.

Friends of Bellport Bay purchased $20,000 worth of oyster larvae from Cornell Cooperative Extension in Southold, Schultz said. Funds were raised from donations, he said.

When larvae attach themselves to rocks or other hard objects, the infants are known as "spat."

Shells donated by local restaurants were placed in the bay — lining the remains of an old bulkhead — to provide hard surfaces for the spat.

Gregg Rivara, a Cornell Cooperative Extension aquaculture specialist, said it takes about 18 months for spat to mature, adding they spawn once a year. It will be years before enough oysters survive to rebuild the population, he said. 

"It could be a decade [or] decades," he said. "It depends on a lot of factors."

Studies have found that oysters in New York typically live only four to five years amid threats from parasites, pollution and warming waters. The survival rate of oysters in Bellport Bay is 74.9%, compared to 66% in Oyster Bay, according to one recent study.

Using the remains of the bulkhead — lost in some long-ago storm — was part of the Friends group's philosophy of reusing available resources whenever possible, Schultz said.

He and Rivara said the oysters, as they grow, will "knit" themselves into a reef that will help protect the shoreline.

“Spat on shell will eventually mature, creating little oyster reefs, which not only filters the water but also creates habitat for other bay bottom species such as crabs and flounder and fluke," Schultz said. "Any other species that live in our bay will benefit from a spat on shell program.”

Oyster program

Friends of Bellport Bay's "SOS," or Spat on Shell, program aims to add 1 million oysters to the bay this year. Here's how it works:

  • Baby oyster larvae are grown in Cornell Cooperative Extension's Southold hatchery.
  • Restaurants across Long Island donate used clam and oyster shells to Cornell.
  • Shells are deposited along the Bellport Bay shoreline.
  • Larvae are deposited separately, usually about a day after the shells.
  • Larvae are called "spat" when they attach themselves to the shells — or any hard object they can find, such as rocks, bulkheads and even soft drink bottles.
  • Oysters take about a year to mature and spawn new larvae.

SOURCES: Friends of Bellport Bay, Cornell Cooperative Extension 

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