Aquaculture in Suffolk County’s Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program
What is Shellfish Aquaculture?
Common Definition: Aquaculture is the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fish, shellfish, algae, and other organisms in all types of water environments. The term aquaculture refers to the cultivation of both marine and freshwater species and can range from land-based to open-ocean production.
The jurisdiction of the Suffolk County Division of Planning and Environment in the Department of Economic Development and Planning (Department) is limited to the cultivation of marine species of shellfish within the County’s adopted Shellfish Cultivation Zone located in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay. The term Shellfish Aquaculture as it is defined in the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program is the equivalent of Shellfish Cultivation.
Legal Definition: Shellfish Cultivation is the controlled, or partially controlled, raising, breeding, growing, and containment of shellfish in any marine hatchery or through on-bottom or off-bottom culture as permitted by the County of Suffolk, New York State Fish and Wildlife Law (N.Y. Environmental Conservation Law Article 11), and other applicable Federal, State and local laws, and regulations.
Shellfish Aquaculture in Peconic and Gardiners Bays, Suffolk County New York
The cultivation of shellfish has been conducted in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay since the late 1800’s. The first piece of State legislation that affected oyster cultivation in Peconic and Gardiners Bays was passed in 1884; known officially as Chapter 385, An Act to cede lands underwater of Gardiners and Peconic Bays, to Suffolk County, Long Island, for the cultivation of shellfish. This legislation permitted Suffolk County to issue grants of underwater land for the purpose of oyster cultivation only.
During the period of 1885 - 1914, approximately 45,000 acres of underwater land grants were sold/issued by Suffolk County. On or about 1915, Suffolk County ceased the sale/issuance of underwater land grants; and while some of these oyster grants have remained in private ownership through deed transfers, the majority of the underwater lands that were granted have since reverted to County/State ownership for non-payment of taxes. Suffolk County also instituted policy that all underwater land parcels that are taken by the County for non-payment of taxes shall not be sold and shall be assigned to the “General Purpose Use” classification. These parcels shall be held for general public use and may be made available for lease.
Pursuant to Chapter 425, Laws of New York 2004 (2004 Leasing Law), as codified in New York State Environmental Conservation Law §13-0302, the State of New York ceded title to approximately 110,000 acres of underwater lands in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay to Suffolk County for the purpose of shellfish cultivation, and authorized the County to prepare, adopt and implement a shellfish aquaculture lease program for this region.
In August 2009, after a rigorous four year development process, the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay (Lease Program) was established by Suffolk County Local Law No. 25-2009 (Chapter 475, Article II of the Suffolk County Code). This new program provided secure access to marine space within the Shellfish Cultivation Zone for private, commercial shellfish aquaculture in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay. The Shellfish Cultivation Zone, which was also developed and adopted by the County by Local Law 25-2009 included historic, private oyster grants; Temporary Marine Area Use Assignments (TMAUAs) that had been issued by the NYSDEC prior to the implementation of the Lease Program; and other contiguous areas where the impacts/conflicts of shellfish aquaculture activities on environmental resources/socio-economic concerns would be minimal. While the County is authorized to issue leases within the Shellfish Cultivation Zone for shellfish cultivation, the County’s authority does not extend to the regulation of this activity. As such, the County controls: the location of shellfish farms through issuance of leases on underwater land within a formally adopted Shellfish Cultivation Zone; and the extent and intensity of aquaculture use through limits on lease size and number. State and Federal regulatory agencies (i.e. The Army Corps. Of Engineers, US Coast Guard, NYSDEC) determine the type and number of shellfish species that may be cultivated, methods of cultivation and harvest/handling of farmed shellfish via regulatory permits. For more information on the initial development of the Lease Program, please go to the Program Development section of this website.
During the first ten years (Phase I) of the Lease Program, the Department conducted a total of nine lease application cycles. In order to address the access needs of existing shellfish aquaculture already in operation, the first lease application cycle (Cycle #1) that implemented in January of 2010, was limited to existing TMAUA holders. Lease Application Cycle #2, which was implemented that following May of 2010, was limited to private oyster grant owners (POGOs) that wished to cultivate shellfish species other than oysters within their oyster grant. In addition to accommodating existing shellfish farmers and POGOs, starting in 2011, the County conducted one lease application cycle per year that new made new lease acreage available to new shellfish aquaculturists. In total, during Phase I the County conducted a total of none lease application cycles, thus creating new opportunities and supporting the growth of the industry. Given the acreage cap limitation, the demand for lease acreage was consistently greater than the acreage available under the Annual Acreage Cap Limit, which demonstrated a strong and expanding interest in the shellfish aquaculture industry.
As a result of Phase I, aquaculturists were able to obtain access at secure locations where they could establish shellfish farms, which fostered private investment in their shellfish aquaculture businesses, Peconic and Gardiners Bays and the towns that surround these water bodies. Given that all Leaseholders are required to obtain regulatory permits from relevant government agencies prior to conducting shellfish cultivation activities on their leases and are required regularly to report their shellfish landings; regulatory agencies noted an increase in permit applications and a subsequent increase in the amount of cultivated shellfish being harvested/landed.
Pursuant to state and county laws, the Department conducted a review of the Shellfish Cultivation Zone and Lease Program known as the Ten Year Review Project. This two year project was developed to evaluate Phase I of the Lease Program and determine, what, if any changes should be made to the Lease Program administration and/or Shellfish Cultivation Zone. During this process, the County engaged an energetic group of stakeholders, local elected officials, and regulatory agencies, getting feedback and comments on all aspects of the Lease Program. As a result of the Ten Year Review, revisions and modifications were made to the Shellfish Cultivation Zone; and amendments to administrative requirements and procedures were recommended for inclusion in the local law and Administrative Guidance document, to improve the efficacy and effectiveness of the Lease Program. For additional information on the Ten Year Review Project you may click this link Ten Year Review Project or select the Program Review on the navigation bar.
During the next ten years (Phase II) of the Lease Program, as established by Local Law 9-2021, the amount of new lease acreage that will be made available for leasing will once again be limited to 600 additional acres (60 acres per year) during Phase II. Existing leaseholders will be given the opportunity to renew their lease for additional ten year period and continue cultivating shellfish within their current lease site. Eligible leaseholders that can document a need for a second lease site may be given the opportunity to apply for and secure a second lease site. While a new annual lease acreage cap will be instituted and made available during Phase II, the Shellfish Cultivation Zone was reduced by 43% and now only encompasses about 15% of the 110,000 acres of underwater lands in Peconic and Gardiners Bay, which was originally ceded to the County by the State of New York. That being said, of the 15% of Peconic and Gardiners Bays that is included in the Zone, the total of amount of “new” lease acreage the County is able to lease under both Phase I and Phase II is less than 1.1%.
These changes and amendments have been made to the Lease Program to enable the continuation for predictable growth in areas where the potential impacts of shellfish aquaculture activities on environmental resources/socio-economic concerns will be minimal. While still allowing for the continued leasing of underwater lands for shellfish cultivation, which in turn is expected to increase the production of large numbers of oysters, hard clams and bay scallops on shellfish farms that will help augment the spawning potential of native shellfish populations. This continued increase of filter feeding bivalves on new and existing shellfish farms will exert a positive influence on water quality by helping to control nutrient cycling and contributing to the prevention of noxious plankton blooms, such as brown tide. These are only a couple of the ecosystem services associated with shellfish aquaculture and are provided on a sustainable basis at little to no cost to the general public. In addition to the ecosystem services discussed above, there are other meaningful benefits such as the increased opportunity for marine based jobs, education and outreach conducted by the shellfish farmers to the consumers that purchase and eat the shellfish grown in the local Peconic Estuary, which that helps create more stewards of the bays. Expansion of the marine based economy and increased appreciation and stewardship of the bays each contribute to the quality of life and sense of place in East End communities.