The pandemic has shifted the path for many of us, and it has also changed the journey of the local oyster’s return to the Great South Bay.
By returning oysters and oyster shells back into the bay, habitats can be replenished.
Local nonprofit organizations involved in oyster habitat restoration have adjusted their procedures to ensure safety for volunteers, restaurateurs, baymen and oyster farmers amid the pandemic.
Maureen Dunn, water quality scientist of Seatuck Environmental Association of Islip, established Half Shells for Habitat Oyster Recovery Program in 2018. Through the program, Seatuck volunteers recover used oyster shells from local restaurants to restore oyster habitats.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, volunteers would stop at roughly 24 restaurants throughout the towns of Islip, Brookhaven and Hempstead to pick up buckets of used shells and bring them to designated composting sites, where they were cured in sunlight. This year-long process, mandated by the Department of Environmental Conservation, Dunn said, kills any disease attached to the mollusks and prepares a safe habitat for oyster larvae.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into collecting these shells,” Dunn said.
But as concerns for COVID-19 increased and the outbreak spread, the nonprofit feared there may be sanitary issues associated with volunteers touching used shells. Group members determined they had to reduce their efforts
for safety reasons, and by mid-March, it decreased its shell intake from restaurants by about 90 percent, Dunn said.
As of Sept. 1, Dunn said, a few select restaurants remain on the list of collecting sites. Volunteers currently use gallon bags lined with plastic as a precaution.
“It’s a solution — for now,” she said.
But Dunn said it’s created newfound issues for some restaurant owners and oyster farmers, who are “already burdened” by the financial impact of the pandemic.
However, nearby nonprofit organization Save the Great South Bay rolled out a new program this summer to help oyster farmers and restaurateurs who have been struggling from the pandemic.
“We were worried for their financial futures,” said STGSB executive director Robyn Silvestri.
Through STGSB’s Oyster Project, the nonprofit purchases excess oysters and inventory from farmers and repurpose them into the bay’s no-harvest zones. The oysters also improve the quality of bay water through natural filtration. The group has already released approximately 7,000 oysters in the bay, Silvestri said.
STGSB board president Todd Shaw said the Oyster Project was “his dream.” It came to fruition with help from West Babylon-based Gino Macchio Foundation, he said, which installed a barge in the Great South Bay near the Fire Island inlet to sort and clean the oysters, “and to have a central location to be productive, particularly in these times of great stress while the restaurants are closed.”
While STGSB’s creek cleanup events were cancelled this year, the nonprofit has adapted by making smaller efforts, Silvestri said.
“Instead of all gathering, there will be a central pickup point for gloves and bags,” she said. “People will disperse in their own small teams, and leave the debris at designated pickup points.”
Sister organization Friends of Bellport Bay, which also partnered on the Oyster Project, primarily functions outdoors — which has allowed most of their restoration efforts to continue, said president and director Thomas Schultz.
The group, which was created to help improve the water quality of Bellport Bay, partners with a local hatchery to purchase hundreds of bay oysters, which are grown and later released when they reach the appropriate size.
“[The pandemic] did not adversely impact us because we are able to work outdoors,” he said. “We make sure we are all still taking proper precautions. It all made it a lot more stressful, but it didn’t stop us from executing.”