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Oyster gardeners Eli Stertz, Alina Lundry, Kurt Giehl and Jeff Ragovin. (Photo courtesy of South Fork Sea Farmers)

You know when you read some horrible, sad story in the news and think, “Man, I wish I could do something about that,” but the enormity of the cause, whatever it is, seems entirely insurmountable? No small act on your part could make a difference. Or could it? 

That happened to Jeff Ragovin, co-founder of South Fork Sea Farmers, the mission-driven, not-for-profit aimed at making community members staunch stewards of their own aqua-environment. 

It all started on a rainy Saturday about five years ago, when Ragovin, an enthusiastic fisherman whose day job is in the tech world, came across a story in a local paper about the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery and the work they’d been doing for years to re-bolster the area’s aquaculture. Housed in a World War II Naval torpedo testing range on Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay, the Hatchery is the launching pad for millions of shellfish larvae annually, spawning them, feeding them and getting them to the point where they can be seeded into the surrounding watery environment to grow to maturity.

“I had no idea they existed — most people don’t,” says Ragovin. “So I contacted the director and said, ‘Hey, I’m a fisherman and I’m really concerned about the environment and the water quality. I think what you’re doing is amazing — can I come down and see?’” 

Hatchery director John “Barley” Dunne, invited him to see what the process was all about; it was a life-changing experience for Ragovin.

Jeff Ragovin with his oyster cages. (Photo courtesy of South Fork Sea Farmers)

But being a sea creature surrogate is no simple endeavor, although it’s a very necessary one. The hatchery and its shellfish seeding program was born in 1989 as a response to the die-off of local bay scallops and other shellfish due to a nitrogen-born scourge called the brown tide, an algae bloom created by septic-system run-off and lawn and farm fertilizers.

While the hatchery is committed to bringing back a viable population of local shellfish in general, it’s the eastern oysters — which individually can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, acting as a natural clean-up crew for the sea — that have been an important key in the battle to save the bays.

And there’s no end in sight to the war on water. Recent statistics out of Stony Brook University are not positive. In 2021, the effects of climate change and excessive myriad algae blooms created oxygen-starved, toxic conditions for sea life (and people, too) from June to October, making many spots not suitable for fish or shellfish at all. 

It’s the kind of knowledge you can’t un-know, especially if you are a person who is drawn to the seaside beauty of the East End of Long Island, like Ragovin. 

After meeting with Dunne, he created his annual fundraiser, “Shell It Out,” to benefit the hard work of the hatchery (this year’s is Saturday, August 20, and you can still nab tickets here), but he also engaged Dunne to help him launch a not-for-profit pilot program called East Hampton Seed, which brings community members into the fold as oyster-growing members of the clam, scallop, fish and oyster-saving cavalry. 

“I first started growing myself with just a thousand oysters. It was amazing! I learned and then expanded, and got more and more people interested in it,” he says. “We launched South Fork Sea Farmers five years ago. Fast forward to today, and we probably have close to 200 families growing oysters.” That’s a whole lot of happy filters helping out our waters.

You’re never too young to become an oyster gardener: Harrison Pillod shows off an oyster he grew. (Photo courtesy of South Fork Sea Farmers)

This year, South Fork Sea Farmers added a scholarship component to its good work, giving away five “Steward of the Marine Environment” scholarships to local high school seniors applying to study marine biology via a grant from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation. Local student volunteers have also been key in SFSF’s project to grow a reef, “so the oysters can grow without us!” 

But it’s seeing the light go on in each new oyster gardener’s eyes that really keeps Ragovin energized and pushing for more. 

“The great part is everyone grows and gets to take back full-grown oysters every season, and then seed those,” he says. “The thing we love is seeing them feel like they’re part of this. They’re not only growing oysters from tiny larvae, but they’re off-setting pollution and algea. We started with only a few people — now, there’s a waitlist!”