By Kathryn G. Menu
Bob Donelly loves all kinds of shellfish, except oysters. To eat, that is.
Donelly is one of over three dozen Sag Harbor residents who have found joy, a connection to the ecology of the Peconic Estuary, and sometimes, culinary delights through the Sag Harbor Oyster Club, which is about to embark on its second year.
“I am going to see if I learn to love them,” said Donelly this week.
Joe Tremblay, co-owner of the Bay Burger restaurant, founded the Sag Harbor Oyster Club last year in an effort to increase awareness about the fragility of the Peconic Estuary, improve the water quality of Sag Harbor Cove and bring community members together. This year, the club aims to increase its membership of residents with access to waterfront properties wishing to tend to their own oyster crop, as well as members of the larger community through a Sag Harbor Community Oyster Garden, which the club hopes to create across from Short Beach on the edge of Bay Point.
Tremblay was drawn to the project after spending summers on his father-in-law’s property on the Cove. An avid fisherman, Tremblay often heard stories of what the Cove used to be like, and the shellfish it boasted, all the while watching as the water grew murky each summer season.
“There was no eel grass, no scallops and we had coffee brown water sometimes,” said Tremblay. “I figured if I could get a lot of people focused on this one thing, we could see a difference.”
With the help of the Cornell Cooperative’s Southold Project on Aquaculture Training (SPAT), Tremblay began the Sag Harbor Oyster Club, using the same principals and goals of SPAT as its mission.
“The goal of the program is to help reseed the bays with shellfish and improve water quality,” he said. “But it is also really about getting people involved with the water and making them caretakers, stakeholders of the water we live on.”
Last year, through fliers and word-of-mouth, Tremblay was able to assemble 40 residents, primarily from Sag Harbor Cove, all who through SPAT were able to seed 1000 oysters off their properties. The dues, which include the seedlings, gear and a monthly lecture series, is $250 for the first year, $150 for subsequent years.
“And you get to keep the oysters,” said Tremblay.
Donelly obviously didn’t get involved for the oysters. Rather, it was because he wanted to do something for the ecology of the Cove and meet his neighbors in an engaged and active way.
“I am proud to say most of them made it through the winter,” he said of his seedlings. “So we will have lots of friends when it comes time to give them away.”
“The great thing about oysters is they are the vacuum cleaner of the sea and so when oysters thrive, it improves all the other species, the grasses – everything can come back,” he continued. “I think this is a fabulous first step in terms of improving the water quality of Sag Harbor Cove.”
Donelly’s six grandchildren have even gotten in on the action.
“We have a gaggle of them every weekend, sometimes longer, and a great part of the fun of this is being able to put in crab traps with them, check them, go out onto Sag Harbor Cove where we have our special places for clams, which of course I will never tell you about,” he said. “It’s all a part of the delight – seeing the kids learning about all of this and watching them come to appreciate it.”
Larry Bayes has also shared his knowledge, through the club, with his grandchildren. The Morris Cove resident, said it was exciting to have them involved in the process, and that he felt it taught them a lot. Unlike Donelly, he also has delighted in the culinary fruits of his labor, which he admits has sometimes been “a lot of work and a pain in the neck.”
“Joe said to me, take some out for Thanksgiving,” he said. “So I took out 26 and they were delicious.”
Phil Bucking, Jr., who is also a member with his wife Diane, said his crop has grown well over the course of the last year and said there was no question he would sign up again this year.
“They started out the size of a nickel, and now I probably have several oysters that are three inches across, with fat bellies,” he said.
For Bucking, a son of Sag Harbor who grew up clamming with his baymen uncles, it is nice to see shellfish reintroduced to the Cove.
“Before I can even remember, there used to be a lot of oysters in Sag Harbor,” he said. “it is nice to see us reintroducing them to the area.”
This year, Tremblay expects two-thirds of the membership to continue with the program, seeding another 1000 oysters off their properties. Tremblay has also hooked up with the Southampton Town Trustees and SPAT in the development of a Sag Harbor Community Oyster Garden across from Short Beach, modeled after another successful trustee shellfish garden in Tiana Bay in Hampton Bays.
In its pilot year, the community garden will be limited to 15 people, at a cost of $200 per person for membership. Tremblay said town trustees have already filed paperwork with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and that SPAT is prepared to set up the infrastructure for the community garden.
In addition to having community garden members plant oyster seedlings in the garden, the hope is those with access to excess oysters will add to the abundance by releasing them in the community garden. By the end of this year, Tremblay expects the club’s private membership will boast between 50,000 to 75,000 oysters and if even half of that is seeded in the community garden before they spawn in the fall, the result could be in the millions.
“We wanted to create a place for people without waterfront access,” said Tremblay. “This way, for example, if you live across the street from Bay Burger, you can still get involved if you want to.”