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Town RFP could cause shakeup in bay hatcheries

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The Town of Oyster Bay sent out a request for proposals last month that could cause some major changes in the ways shellfish are grown and harvested in town-owned areas on the bottom of Oyster Bay.

Currently, commercial shellfishing company Frank M. Flower & Sons Inc. leases 1,500 acres in the Long Island Sound in which it farms clams and oysters. The lease is set to end in 2024. Under the town’s RFP, only 800 acres would be available for private firms, with a provision that no single bidder can lease more than 700 acres. One hundred of the 800 acres would be reserved for smaller operations, said George Baptista, the town’s deputy commissioner for the environment.

Baptista said what happens to the 700 acres would be determined by the Town Board. The town, he explained, currently charges $40 per acre each year, and the RFP would increase that to $200. The RFP, he said, was sent on June 12, and responses are requested by July 26.

“The opportunity is now to look at different methods to foster competition,” Baptista said, “and we wanted to find a licensee that can accomplish a friendly, environmental method of aquaculture in the bay and get a more sustainable fee for the town.”

James Cammarata, an attorney with Frank M. Flower & Sons, said the firm was examining the RFP, and planned to respond to it. He declined to comment further.

The area around the acres Flower has leased is available to those who have shellfishing licenses, if the waters are certified to be clean enough for harvesting. Among these fishermen are members of the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association, who have been in a dispute with Flower & Sons for years.

Bill Painter, president of the association, said he was most concerned with the environmental impact of Flower & Sons’ harvesting methods. The company’s main means of harvesting clams, Painter said, is hydraulic dredging, which involves shooting water at high pressure into the bottom of the Sound to break it up, so a mechanical dredge can move through it and gather the clams.

This kind of dredging, Painter added, is not safe for the environment. It causes excess sediment to blow out onto the surrounding sea floor, he said, smothering other marine life. Then only clams survive and nearly everything else dies.

Cammarata said the issues raised by the Baymen’s Association have been thoroughly reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of State, all of which have said there is no lasting negative impact on the environment from the technology used by Flower & Sons. He also said that studies conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reached the same conclusions.

“The results of these studies are always the same,” Cammarata said, “that there is no lasting negative impact whatsoever from the type of harvesting equipment Frank M. Flower & Sons uses.”

State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, has received funding to conduct a study on the effects of hydraulic dredging in the area.

Painter  said he did not “feel good” about the RFP, and that the town needed to wait for the results of Gaughran’s study before making a decision on how to proceed with leasing.

Gaughran said he has provided the Department of Environmental Conservation with $75,000 in grant funding, and that the department contracted researchers at Stony Brook University to conduct the study. The beginning of the study was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it should be starting soon, although Gaughran said he could not give a potential end date.

“We feel that the town should really just hold off and wait for the study results,” Painter said, “and at that time they can make a decision of what type of activity will be acceptable in the harbor.”

Painter said that that idea is supported by the fact that the baymen have been working with the town on a solution to issue for over two decades. He added that the baymen have been in litigation with the town and Flower & Sons for over 10 years over these claims.

“It’s always been wrong,” he said, “and I’m just really amazed that after sitting with the town trying to work out fixing this problem for many years, this is what they came out with, although it doesn’t surprise me.”

Bill Bleyer, the president of Friends of the Bay, said the health of the bay is of the utmost importance to him. He said he supports the RFP’s reducing of acreage when it comes to allowing commercial harvesting, granting more public access to underwater land. He said the population of clams in the bay has dropped dramatically and that oysters are very hard to come by, so much so that they had to be imported from Connecticut for last year’s Oyster Fest.

Shellfish are a vital part of the North Shore, Bleyer said. Not only do they provide jobs and food, but they are also a critical part of the ecosystem, as clams and oysters filter pollutants in the water.

Bleyer said the town agreed with Friends of the Bay’s suggestion to create a bay management plan that would examine the entire bay’s ecosystem, which he said is a huge victory. This would determine, Bleyer said, what should be going on in the bay in terms of dredging and seeding, while looking at the long-term health of the bay.

“Our feeling is the status quo isn’t working because the shellfish population has dropped significantly,” Bleyer said, “so we need to look at other ways to do things.”

The town has indicated a willingness to work with potential bidders to allow for them to get the best possible licensing, a commitment that Friends of the Bay approves.