When summer wanes and the winter chill sets in, Bay Burger proprietor Joe Tremblay always finds he has more time on his hands. Instead of spending these months unwinding, though, Tremblay can be found researching eco-friendly septic tanks, participating in 725 GREEN meetings or visiting up-island waste management sites.
Now, with help from the Cornell Cooperative’s Southold Project on Aquaculture Training (SPAT), Tremblay is starting an Oyster Club for waterfront property owners on Sag Harbor Cove in the hopes of helping them farm their own oysters. The club isn’t solely focused on the culinary aspect of raising and feasting upon this shellfish delicacy. Tremblay hopes the group will change residents’ attitudes toward the Peconic Estuary.
“I think this is a great way to engage waterfront property owners in the water that they live on,” opined Tremblay. “The water is degraded because everyone is polluting it just a little bit, so we can only fix the problem by having everyone work on it.”
“If I can get the majority of waterfront homeowners ‘tending a garden’ in the cove or eating seafood from the cove, then it’s in their own personal best interest to care about how they and their neighbors might negatively impact the cove,” added Tremblay.
East End waters are subject to a host of environmental problems, said Tremblay, including the recent brown tides. Everything from lawn pesticides to storm water runoff can harm the delicate ecosystem of the cove. Tremblay says these problems may be to blame for the water’s murky quality in the summer and a substantial loss of eelgrass, which shellfish like scallops depend on for their survival.
Will Kirchoff, who attended the club’s introductory meeting at Bay Burger on Sunday, May 3, noted that water quality has drastically declined since his youth.
“I remember as a kid coming out here and the water was crystal clear. You could see eight feet down, even in the summer,” Kirchoff remembers. “We need to try and bring the harbor back … a lot of people are taking this beauty for granted but we can’t just take, take, take.”
Revitalizing the oyster population is one piece, albeit an important one, in the puzzle of clarifying the cove’s waters. Because oysters are filter feeders, they often digest pollutants and thus help purify the water. Kim Tetrault, who runs the Southold Cooperative, told Tremblay that all the water in the Chesapeake Bay was filtered through the guts of oysters at least once a day when the estuary was at its peak, but it now takes almost 135 days for the water to be fully filtered. The depopulation of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as in Sag Harbor Cove, can be attributed in part to over harvesting. Tremblay said sightings of wild oysters in the cove today is a rarity akin to spotting a whale from the beach.
With the support of the Oyster Club’s 22 members, Tremblay hopes to reverse this trend. Each member will receive 1,000 seed oysters. The gear, mainly consisting of a cage to house the oysters, the necessary training and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation permits are all included in the annual dues: $250 for the first year and $150 each additional year.
These oyster-growing accoutrements are all provided by SPAT, though Tremblay has offered to make a run up to Southold and pick up gear and oyster seeds for everyone involved. For now, the DEC is issuing permits only to waterfront property owners. Members without access to the water can harvest their oysters at the Southold station. A few cove property owners have stepped forward and will allow members to attach oyster cages to their docks. Tremblay said members should expect to yield between 75 to 80 percent of their total seed, which translates into a sizable number of oysters.
Tremblay maintains, however, that most members aren’t joining for the pleasure of noshing on the fruits of their labor. He referenced a survey conducted by SPAT which noted, on average, that eating oysters was only the eighth most popular reason to join the cooperative.
“I actually don’t eat oysters,” said Kirchoff at the meeting on Sunday. “I wanted to help the local environment.”
Southampton Town also jumped on this initiative and will allow 40 town residents to place oyster cages off a dock in Tiana Beach in Hampton Bays.
Tremblay’s club will host monthly educational lectures, including “Water Quality, Brown Tides and Harmful Algae” in July and “Configuring and Maintaining Oyster Gardens” in June. On Sunday, members asked questions on how to open oysters. Tremblay said a cooking class could be scheduled down the line and hosted at his restaurant.
In the upcoming summer months, as the club learns to deep fry these shellfish treats or winterize their oyster garden, Tremblay hopes the group will have a positive impact on the local environment.
“This kind of environmentalism speaks to me,” he said. “You can see results in my lifetime. If we can act locally and improve water quality in Sag Harbor Cove, then maybe other sub-estuaries will see us as a model.”