by Julianne Mosher |

More than 15 volunteers came out to the marina in Bellport on Saturday to help retrieve and plant 80,000 baby oysters as an initiative to restore the shellfish population.

Friends of Bellport Bay, a not-for-profit organization that was created to help improve the water quality of Bellport Bay with education and strategies, headed the group. This past weekend’s event was its fifth season involved with shellfish restoration.

It all started early this summer when Brookhaven Town nurtured baby oysters at their oyster sanctuary at Cedar Beach in Mt. Sinai. During the first week in June, the baby shellfish were moved from the north shore to their temporary home of growth in Bellport Bay.

“Originally they were the size of a quarter and could not survive,” said Thomas Schultz, president of FoBB. “It’s phenomenal that in that short amount of time, they can grow that large.”

It only took three months for the babies to grow, while resting in their cages at the bottom of the bay. That’s when volunteers dived into the water on Saturday afternoon, unlocked the cages and put the shellfish on a boat, sailing them 10 minutes away to be planted in their final resting place.

Schultz said that the exact location of the planting needs to remain anonymous, but added that the full-grown oysters were planted along the shoreline in an eastern part of the bay.

Some areas of Bellport Bay are considered red-zones, meaning that they are off-limits to any shell fishing. These parts of the water are where the planters are able to drop the oysters, leaving them to live in peace and do their jobs.

Shellfish help to improve water quality, mitigate harmful algal blooms, restore shellfish populations and increase biodiversity in coastal waters—so the newly planted shellfish are helping to clean out the bay’s contaminated water.

The undisclosed location is one of five shellfish sanctuaries that are part of the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Project, led by Gov. Cuomo, the DEC, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Stony Brook University and dozens of other volunteer organizations.

In June, the $10.4 million initiative established the sanctuaries, stocking them with juvenile and adult shellfish over several years to meet the target densities necessary to support maximum water quality benefits and shellfish enhancement.

Gov. Cuomo told the FoBB volunteers earlier this summer that the initiative is one way to help fight climate change and that it’s important to bring the shellfish back.

“Mother Nature had the best water filtration system, clams and oysters, but we wiped them out,” he said. “We are now restoring that natural water filtration system, but we are doing it to a grander scale than ever before and it is going to make a difference.”

It was this inspiration from the state and local government that got the volunteers involved Saturday. “I’m very excited and inspired by New York State and their shellfish restoration program,” Schultz said. “Not only am I inspired, but I’m thrilled by the actions that our local, state and federal governments are taking to restore the shellfish population… it’s nice to see after decades that the government feels the same way.”

The oyster planting in the bay is a constant job— when the baby oysters were planted in June, they were constantly monitored, sized and weighed. When they were moved to their sanctuary this week, the monitoring will continue with constant check-ups to make sure they are growing and surviving on their own.

“We don’t just throw oysters at the bottom of the bay and leave them there… we keep up on them,” Schultz said. There, the shellfish can naturally live their whole lifespan and reproduce each year.

“We showed the state that they should pump money into the shellfish restoration program,” he added, “and Bellport Bay is the only sanctuary in the Great South Bay.”

Schultz was proud to say that the weekend’s event was successful in helping to restore the bay’s ecosystem together as a community.

“We’ve been at this for five years,” he said. “Our goal was to plant 1 million mussels, clams, oysters and scallops… On Saturday we were only a little short with 950,000 shellfish planted.”

Scroll down from for photos from the day (credit: Julianne Mosher).