Last Friday, on the first noticeably brisk morning of the season, about a dozen students from Southold High School huddled around each other at Paddle Diva, a small paddleboard and kayak rental spot situated at the end of Boatyard Road in Springs.
Led by owner Gina Bradley, along with instructor Tim Wood and Southold teacher Mira Johnson, the students were about to embark on something much more than just a leisurely spin around the waters of Three Mile Harbor. They were all there to volunteer for a late summer oyster seeding, a nearly decade-long tradition Bradley keeps with the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery, in a collaborative effort to clean local waters. The Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center, which operates under the Cornell Cooperative Extension, is headquartered in Southold, which includes its own shellfish hatcheries and nursery areas. It was meant to be.
“It’s probably my favorite event of the year,” Bradley, a Springs resident, says, with a grin, of the seeding. “Our water is so important. And if even one of these kids develops an interest in this, that’s a huge win in my book.”
After she and Wood are done tying down boards and paddles into two of her company trucks, she rallies the students onto their school bus and then leads them in her vehicle on the short trip down Three Mile Harbor Road to Folkstone Drive, which dead ends into a small body of water just south of Maidstone Beach.
The group is met by hatchery director John “Barley” Dunne, along with members of South Fork Sea Farmers, the hatchery’s associated non-profit organization, aboard a small boat ready to transport hundreds of thousands of shellfish seeds into the bay. The hatchery is part of the town’s aquaculture department, with the intent to enhance the already commercially valuable shellfish located within the waters across the township. Currently, the hatchery is responsible for producing large quantities of clam, oyster and bay scallop seeds and distributes them throughout local water. Although its headquarters is in Montauk, there’s a land-based ambient bay water fed nursery on Three Mile Harbor and a field grow-out system, containing bags, trays and nets in Napeague Harbor.
According to Dunne, one oyster can clean up to 50 gallons of water on its own, with the clams able to do about half that.
“Our annual crop of oyster seeds is about 2 million,” he says. “That’s a lot of water being filtered.” It’s about half that for the clams, as they’re slower growers, with Dunne noting it takes about four to five years for them to get to that “nice, littleneck raw-bar size.”
After Dunne’s brief but informative tutorial, the students hit the water, arranged two to a board. Although conditions were windy the volunteers deposited in total 22,000 oyster seeds and 240,000 clam seeds into the bay, via bus tubs and buckets loaded from the boat by the sea farmer and hatchery members. The whole seeding was done in less than an hour.
“At South Fork Sea Farmers, we are really trying to educate our fellow residents, not only about the benefits of, but the need for their participation in the health and protection of our and their local waters,” says Alina Lundry, of SFSF. “We are engaging with our community by teaching about the benefits to growing oysters in one of our gardens or on their own dock, or by participating in our reef building program with our local high school students, or simply volunteering on seeding days, such as today.”
Once every seed was disseminated into the bay, the students and other volunteers returned to the shore at Folkstone and readied themselves for a quick visit to the hatchery’s land-based nursery a few minutes away.
There, Dunne proceeded to shuck a few oysters right then and there, with a few brave students trying them for the first time ever.
“Today these students learned the benefits of bi-valves filtering our water, and providing habitat to other marine life, and the difference between oysters, clams and scallops,” Lundry says. “Some of them actually tried eating oysters for the first time today, and right out of the water. What better learning experience is there than that!”
In addition to Paddle Diva, Dunne says the hatchery does seedings with East Hampton School’s Surfrider Club, plus annual nursery tours and clamming expeditions with Project Most and South Fork Natural History Museum’s Young Environmentalist Society. They also attend several events year-round across the South Fork, like the Montauk Seafood Festival and the East Hampton Town trustee’s “Largest Clam Contest,” where, according to Dunne, there’s a touch tank stocked with the hatchery’s product as well as local estuarine flora and fauna.
“South Fork Sea Farmers presents panel discussions and interviews via LTV,” he adds. “We have a robust oyster gardening program with over 100 members at five different sites and many homeowners growing oysters off of their own docks.”
Talk about the tiny little mollusks that could.