Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine did his best to channel legendary football coach Vince Lombardi in a pep talk to three dozen people huddled by the beach in Bellport Village Saturday morning.
They were getting ready to paddle, motor, sail and even swim across a section of the Great South Bay called Bellport Bay to plant 25,000 seed oysters off a small island near the breach at Old Inlet to the south.
“The fight is on, and I am looking at all the front line warriors,” Romaine said. “Everything you do, every action you take, you are saying, ‘I am going to save the bay.”
“That’s right!” someone responded.
“You’re saying, I believe in nature,” Romaine continued. “We can do this!”
And so they did. At least, it was a start, for the goals of the Friends of Bellport Bay and other environmental groups committed to restoring Long Island’s waters to health could take generations to accomplish, they admit.
“We believe that within five years we will have a stable oyster colony out at Ridge Island and we’re going to keep at it,” said Thomas Schultz, a co-chairman of the group. “The town has committed to donating up to 100,000 oysters this year for us, and we’re going to ask them for another 100,00 next year and so on.”
Romaine, Schultz and others who spoke in the gazebo at the Bellport Marina also talked of the pressing need to reduce nitrogen pollution in the bay from septic systems, lawn fertilizers and other sources.
Elevated levels of nitrogen is what feeds the harmful algal blooms — like brown, red and rust tides — killing shellfish normally relied upon to filter bay waters. The Great South Bay’s massive clam populations collapsed in the mid-1980s due to persistent, widespread brown tides.
Oysters populations haven’t been prevalent in the Great South Bay Estuary since the early 1900s.
“Like the supervisor said, it would be a shame to put oysters in the bay but do nothing about the pollution that’s polluting the bay,” Schultz said.
“It’s just amazing,” said Bellport Village Trustee Leslie O’Connor, “One full-grown oyster, which is still pretty small, can filter 50 gallons of bay water each and every single day.”
After waiting for a couple hours for a storm to pass, the assembled men, women and children took to the water.
They carried 15,000 seed oysters that came from Brookhaven Town’s shellfish hatchery at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai, and another 10,000 from the county-funded Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Cornell aquaculture specialist Gregg Rivara acknowledged that efforts to seed the Great South Bay with clams about a decade ago largely failed, and it was later determined high nitrogen levels, and the resulting algal blooms, crowded out the newly placed clams’ main food sources.
But he was confident these seed oysters would result in a healthy colony, especially because of the existence of the inlet ripped open by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the now-incoming ocean water.
“It also takes more to get clams going than it does oysters,” Rivara said.
Among those readying for the trek to Ridge Island was Lucy Danziger.
She had no watercraft.
“Lucy Danziger is prepared to swim the oysters over to Ridge,” Schultz told the crowd.
She said she didn’t deserve any special recognition, and thanked the group, which had just formed last year using money raised from art sales.
“As somebody who swims this bay every weekend, I want to thank all of you for making it cleaner,” she said. “Obviously Mother Nature has helped. But I can see the difference between two years ago, last year and this year.
“And I welcome any of you to swim with me in Bellport Bay.”
Photo 1: Friends of Bellport Bay volunteers and others at Ridge Island. (Credit: Friends of Bellport Bay)