Oysters take center stage at restoration conference


With the backdrop of the South Shore a window-view away, an array of biologists, council members, financial consultants, farmers, a town mayor, and citizens gathered at The View in Oakdale for some light refreshments and an in-depth discussion of the current oyster restoration efforts at Save the Great South Bay (STGSB).

STGSB is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the continued improvement and recovery of the Great South Bay. On Friday, March 1, they held their most recent speaker series, “Development in Oyster Restoration.”

“I joined the organization about six years ago when I realized I was looking for something that had a mission and a purpose,” said Robyn Silvestri, the executive director of STGSB. She emphasized the volunteer-driven nature of the organization, and credited the success of a lot of STGSB’s efforts to their volunteers. “We are all about collaboration.”

Silvestri also highlighted the unique positioning of not only the organization, but the local and surrounding communities as well.

“We do live on an island, and it’s a very unique way of life that we must protect. And our waterways and our drinking water are a big part of that,” she said.

The event’s panelists were Gregg Rivara, aquaculture specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Marine Program; Chelsea Miller from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Demetrios Caroussos, hatchery technician at the Cornell Cooperative Marine Program; and Andy Mirchel, the director of the Great South Bay Oyster Project. Barry Udelson, a New York Sea Grant aquaculture specialist, served as the panel’s moderator.

As explained by the specialists in attendance, the importance of oyster restoration lies in how oysters naturally purify the water they inhabit. However, it’s important for community members and aquaculture specialists alike to understand the caveats associated with this practice.

One of the challenges restorers face is the variation in certified and uncertified bodies of water. As Miller explained, waters are certified if they pass bacteria sampling tests and can harbor shellfish. There are also seasonally certified waters, which are only clean enough during certain times of the year. Oyster restoration is not allowed in uncertified waters as it would then be dangerous to harvest shellfish from those areas.

“For all you oyster lovers out there, all the commercially raised shellfish from the aquaculture industry are raised in certified water, so you don’t have to worry about any of these potential issues,” Udelson said.

While oyster consumers are free from worry, restorers often struggle with these problems in site selection. Rivara pointed out that the techniques they employ are not guaranteed to work at each location, and something as natural as a low tide one night has the power to wipe out an entire oyster reef—ultimately setting restorers back months’ worth of effort.

Throughout the event, panelists underscored the importance of funding multiple times.

“Money always helps,” Caroussos said.

While encouraging awareness of these issues on behalf of oyster growers, the panel also wished to bring attention to another side of the problem of these dirty waters: its nearby communities.

“Learning how our daily activities are impacting our natural environment and then looking for ways that can augment those issues that we’re unaware we are causing [is important],” Caroussos stressed.

Miller echoed his point: “Putting shellfish into the water and building these oyster reefs and stuff is great, and it will contribute to cleaning up the bays, but the bigger problem is the initial pollution going into the water.”

Although this event focused largely on the restoration efforts of oyster restoration, audience member Ralph Corsini brought attention to the commercial side of this matter.

President and founder of the Blue Point Oyster Association and commercial oyster farmer at Ockers Oyster Company, Corsini said the published research about these struggling waters has led the public to believe the oysters they consume are coming from a dying, unhealthy bay.

“This affects my business and all the other farmers out there,” Corsini said. “I just want to bring awareness [to this].”

Corsini wants these misconceptions widely shared by the public to be cleared up, and proposed a partnership between farmers and restorers.

“You need oyster shells; you need rebuilding materials—we’re the farmers out there.”

“I will endeavor to continue to [do this] for as long as I can and as well as I can,” Mirchel said.

In closing, Rhianna Roddy, STGSB’s director of development, announced the establishment of their first oyster ball to be held this upcoming fall. More information will be released in the coming months.

Grace Sargent is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.


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