By Annette Hinkle
Despite the fact they’ve been around since 1912, there’s still a good chance you’ve never heard of the Sea Scouts — which is ironic, given the fact the East End is surrounded by the stuff they frequent.
In fact, Sea Scouts are a maritime division of the Boys Scouts of America’s Venturing Program. Open to both boys and girls ages 14 to 21, members tend to be inspired by a sense of adventure and troops (or “Ships” as they are called) can be found from coast to coast and internationally in places like Sweden and the UK. There’s even a troop in Columbus, Ohio (where there is a river, incidentally).
But there had never been Sea Scouts on the East End until Josh Belury founded Sea Scout Ship 908 in 2011. Since then, the group, based in Southampton, has been involved in sailing and boating programs and has led community service-learning projects. The scouts offer adventure workshops and hands-on activities for ages six and up and have their own sailboat — a two masted 30 footer — which they use for scouting trips to places like Block Island, Mystic Seaport and Newport, where they will stop by the Newport Folk Festival in late July.
But these days, Sea Scout Ship 908 is spearheading a much larger project — one that has the capacity to affect the ecosystem and economy of the East End — creation of a shellfish hatchery in the town of Southampton.
“The boat is for training and big trips. Our bigger mission now is the shellfish hatchery and restoring ecological balance,” explains Belury. “Our program is about unconditional giving. Join us if you want to learn to give to the environment, each other and the community.”
Though Sea Scouts have been known to take on big humanitarian projects around the globe, Belury says his group is breaking the mold with the first scout sponsored community shellfish hatchery. Ironically, while East Hampton Town has had a successful hatchery program for years, Southampton never has. But with help, guidance and spat (baby oysters) from East Hampton’s Montauk-based hatchery and Cornell Cooperative Extension, since early last summer Sea Scout Ship 908 has been raising oysters in North Sea Harbor in a floating upwell system that feeds the tiny spats nutrients and algae while protecting them from predators.
And over the course of the last four months, Sea Scout Ship 908 has been building a full-fledged hatchery with help from local businesses, individuals and municipalities who have donated time, money, labor and expertise to the cause.
Next Saturday, June 8, the Sea Scouts officially open their new shellfish hatchery on waterfront land owned by Southampton Historical Museum at Conscious Point in North Sea. Those interested in a preview are encouraged to stop by the Sag Harbor Farmer’s Market this Saturday where Sea Scout Ship 908 members will talk about the new hatchery and plans to reintroduce oysters and other shellfish into the Peconic Bay.
While the hatchery has certainly been a community effort, it’s also an effort that is ultimately designed to benefit the community. The goal is to spawn some four million oysters and a million spat for distribution to different hatchery initiatives in Southampton waters. The scouts will also raise their own oysters to adulthood which will then be placed in an oyster reef in North Sea Harbor. The scouts are also working with Dr. Chris Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SOMAS) program to raise hard clams to repopulate western Shinnecock Bay.
Aaron Cuison, who aged out of the Sea Scout program when he turned 21, graduated from Stony Brook University just last week with a marine science degree. He is now taking on the role of assistant scoutmaster for Sea Scout Ship 908 and will act as the hatchery manager, overseeing five local high school students from Southampton, Pierson and Hampton Bays who will conduct research at the facility.
“North Sea Harbor is such a great place to do this,” notes Cuison. “The algae blooms are all very green — there’s no harmful algae and no shading of the water. There’s nothing bad for the shellfish themselves.”
“By happenstance its the location we lucked into,” adds Belury. “A good part of North Sea Harbor is no shellfishing, including where our hatchery is. We can grow clams and oysters and put them into certified waters at certain times of development.”
A vital aspect of the hatchery program will be creation of a reef system for young oysters — a facet of the natural environment which has been lost over time, yet key for recovery of the ecosystem.
To that end, two local carting companies have volunteered to regularly pick up discarded seafood shells from local restaurants. Those shells are being stored in Hampton Bays and will eventually become substrate for the reef system in North Sea Harbor.
“When new oysters spawn, the eggs need a hard substrate and calcium carbonate is the best thing for them to latch on to,” says Cuison. “So you need oysters to make more oysters.”
And once the oyster reefs are established, notes Belury, the rest of the environment will follow.
“In North Sea Harbor, to filter every drop of water you would need three oyster reefs of a million each,” he says. “If we do that, the nitrogen in the water would be needed and used. So now you’d have clear water and things like eel grass growing and scallops would have a place to go and other fin fish would come back.”
“The oyster is a mechanism to create filtering of water for the entire system,” he adds.
Beyond what the hatchery can do for the health of local waters, Belury also views it as an opportunity to build a viable industry on land as well.
“There’s extrinsic value to a shellfish hatchery,” says Belury. “It not only puts shellfish back in the water to harvest, you’re also creating brood stock and spat. When people are buying them to raise in farms it becomes a viable source of income.”
While the hatchery is being constructed in North Sea, architect Mark Matthews has designed it to be a mobile hatchery — Belury notes it can be lifted onto a flat bed truck and relocated to other parts of Southampton should North Sea Harbor’s natural shellfish population return.
Education is a key component of the program, and the Sea Scouts will eventually make use of the Tupper Boat House on adjacent Southampton Town property. Built in 1933, the building, a former nightclub, will be repurposed as an education center for workshops and ideally boat building. It will also house a portion of the hatchery operations.
“To make this a sustainable program we need to educate people,” says Belury.
While earlier this week, a good amount of work remained on the new hatchery, Belury was hopeful he would be able to secure spat from the Cornell and Montauk hatcheries so the community will have an opportunity see for itself what it’s all about on June 8.
“It’s for restoration obviously, our youth and community needs to get their hands wet and the sooner we start making things and people can know there are juvenile shellfish in these barrels cleaning our ecosystem, better for our community,” says Belury.
And while the hatchery is a big effort, it’s one that as Belury notes is coming in well below the initial estimated cost of $500,000. Thanks to donations of goods and services, that amount is more in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.
But Belury is not surprised. After all, it’s in the nature of scouting.
“We’re so frugal and thrifty — that’s a Scout law,” he says.
The opening reception for the Conscience Point Shellfish Hatchery is from 2 to 4 p.m. on June 8, 2013 at the Conscience Point Historic Site and Nature Walk at the end of North Sea Road, Southampton. Sea Scout Ship 908 will be at the Sag Harbor Farmer’s Market on Bay Street at 11 a.m. this Saturday, June 1 to talk about the program. For more information, visit www.seascoutship908.org. To register for environmental classes being offered this summer for ages 6 and up, contact the Southampton Historical Museum, 283-2494 (www.southamptonhistoricalmusuem.org).