Standing on the shores of Cedar Beach Creek in Southhold, Rich Accurso hoses down a bucket of oysters caked in algae and mud. When he’s done, he puts them back in the water until the algae builds up again and he’s ready for another wash.
The cleaner the oysters, the faster they grow and the tastier they are.
“I had never had oysters before coming here,” Akruso said. “It’s a texture that’s hard to get into, but once you taste it, you’ll be hooked.”
For nearly nine years, the Kachog native has been a member of the Suffolk Project for the Aquaculture Training Program (SPAT), an initiative of the Cornell Cooperative in Suffolk County. Named after the word for juvenile oyster, SPAT was designed to encourage community members to participate in returning shellfish to the bay. Through this program, Accurso not only loved the salty taste of Peconic Bay oysters, but also learned how to grow them.
“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about oysters, but I’ll learn as soon as I hear about them,” he said.
For a nominal fee, program participants receive 1,000 oyster seeds and the tools and training they need to start their own shell garden. Once the oysters are fully grown, members can harvest them for their personal use.
At the heart of the operation is Kim Tetrault, a regional aquaculture expert and current director of the SPAT program. When Tetrault was running Cornell’s crustacean hatchery, a curious community member stopped by and asked what he was doing.
“I gave him some seeds and he had great results,” he said. It was this exchange that catalyzed a community-based crustacean program in 2000. Since then, Tetrault has built the program quite literally from scratch.
“Everything is done at home,” he explained. “We have a complete workshop. We build boats, repair motors, build all the equipment…”
With no paid staff, he relies on himself and a dedicated member of volunteers to keep the facility running smoothly. His most dedicated members, including Accurso, are called the Blue Hats.
“They’ve been thoroughly vetted, just like doctors,” Tetrault explains. “We have about 15 members every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday all year long, which is crazy. It’s a lot of time.”
Since the program’s inception, all advertising in the program has consisted of word of mouth. The program currently has approximately 350 participants. Members can grow underwater farms at Cornell’s main facility in Southold, at his one of the program’s three annexes on Long Island, or off his own dock (special license required).
“It’s been pretty impressive to see how interested people are in the last few years,” says Tetrault. “We get new members every year, and we get a lot of repeat customers.”
Some people are drawn to the novelty of oyster farming. For Accurso, it’s the social aspect that motivated him to become a blue hat.
“It’s like a club,” he explained. “I enjoy crowds, so I keep coming.”
For new member Kristen Jock, the decision to sign up boiled down to concerns about her future.
“A big motivator for me is the existential fear of climate change,” she said.
Jock’s dream is to become an ocean farmer and focus on sustainability. She started by taking her course online from her home in Brooklyn. With limited opportunities to grow oysters in the city, she uses the Long Island Railroad and an electric scooter to travel all the way to Southold and maintain an aquatic farm. By growing oysters, she hopes to minimize the damage human activity does to water bodies.
“There is a problem with nitrogen in water. When lawn manure and human waste run into waterways, excess nitrogen is created and nutrients such as algae grow. When present in large quantities, it can cause severe environmental degradation: dense algal blooms prevent other aquatic plants from gaining sunlight, and decomposition deprives the water of excessive amounts of oxygen, suffocating fish. and create a dead zone.
“Oysters are very important filter feeders,” explained Topping. A single mature oyster can filter over 50 gallons of water per day.
“They spit out essentially clean water,” Topping said. When oysters are removed from the water, they take out some of their nitrogen. It also provides natural habitat and protects coastlines from erosion and storms. Compared to other aquaculture industries, such as fish farming, which can pollute the sea, oyster farming is a viable method both commercially and environmentally. All oyster farmers are guardians of the environment, regardless of their reasons for growing oysters.
“It didn’t take me long to get into aquaculture and realize that if I wanted to be an environmentalist, I had to be a shellfish farmer,” explained Tetrault. “Crustacean farming is ‘natural’ and wonderful. “
Members of the SPAT program are prohibited from selling their harvest, but their hard work as environmental stewards is rewarded with fresh local oysters.
“Every garden is a spawner’s sanctuary, so I’d rather have people protect it.” [the oysters] And do whatever they want,” explained Tetro.
When it’s time to harvest, SPAT members are allowed to bring cake (oysters in this case) to eat.