In honor of Hops for Habitat, an art exhibit opening this weekend that will benefit the Marine Meadows program of Cornell Cooperative Extension, we are re-running this interview about the important work the cooperative extension does. Q: Shellabration will support Back to the Bays and SPAT. What’s Back to the Bays?
A: Back to the Bays is our mechanism to further connect people to our marine restoration and stewardship efforts. We just launched it this year in celebration of our Marine Program’s 30th anniversary. Through Back to the Bays we coordinate our different volunteer programs and get people involved with water quality and shellfish work, eelgrass restoration, wetland plant cultivation. We’ll be doing a lot to build shoreline resiliency and coastal habitat in the years ahead.
We’re setting up different stewardship sites throughout Suffolk County, they are hubs for marine education and volunteer opportunities. We work with schools, community groups. We want to do more curriculum integration with the marine restoration work we’re doing here. We’re really trying to reach all age groups. We’ve done a lot of middle school work with this particular program; around 6th grade has been great because we can still inspire them, and they know enough. We’re trying to inspire people at an impactful age through our youth education programming
We’re really trying to build the next generation of stewards.
Q: Do volunteers come and go? Or do they get really invested?
A: Many get really invested. When I first came on board with Cornell I was in charge of our Marine Meadows Program, which involves getting land based participants involved in restoring eelgrass beds.
Through that I had two people come on board as volunteers that eventually became more involved, one as a paid employee and one as an intern, who later on ended up in a paid position as well. We’ve had volunteers from SUNY Stony Brook stay with us through graduation, and I’ve enjoyed seeing them continue to volunteer their time with us as they pursue careers.
From college kids, to Girl Scouts, to retirees, we have received a lot of support and interest in our various programs. SPAT in particular has many long time volunteers!
Q: You mentioned eelgrass and wetland plant restoration, what else does Cornell Cooperative Extension do under the rubric of Back to the Bays?
A: We have numerous shellfish and habitat restoration projects that we are trying to carve a role out for volunteers in, or at least just provide impactful outreach opportunities in. Just one example--in our bay scallop program we operate the largest spawner sanctuary project in the world. That’s been going on in partnership with Long Island University since 2005. We’ve seen populations that were decimated go up exponentially, with harvest levels rebounding.
At our Back to the Bays Stewardship Day last spring we had people come to our Learning Center in Southold and view our scallop barge, and speak with staff to learn about what this project entails and how hard our Scallop Restoration Team works to bring back this economically and ecologically important species. It’s those type of connections that we are trying to make through Back to the Bays.
Q: Sounds like we could chat Back to the Bays for hours. But there’s another beneficiary of Shellabration; SPAT. What’s SPAT all about?
A: Kim Tetrault and the SPAT program he runs helps people become oyster gardeners. He’s really empowered so many people. It’s helping our local populations of shellfish and our water quality. In addition to being a meaningful hobby, this could be a viable industry to enter into and it’s great that he can help inspire people to continue our maritime heritage by learning the practice of aquaculture. Some of his graduates have become commercial growers, making viable livings on the bay. He has a great skill set, getting people excited about growing, getting them involved, and keeping them engaged in the program on a long term basis.
It’s so important to our environment and our community. Grow your own oysters, who would’ve thought it was just as easy as joining the SPAT program? In addition, his volunteers also help us at our publicly funded hatchery to produce the shellfish to reseed our bays. They are a great bunch of people.
Q: Given the huge range of programs your organization carries out, you must get funding on a larger scale than what Shellabration can deliver. What role do events like Shellabration play in the Back to the Bays Mission?
A: It’s true that we rely primarily and historically on public funding, but that’s shifting to needing more community based and business based fundraising. We’ve realized it’s really important both for the funds and for the community awareness and participation aspect of things. Shellabration and events like it really gives us a platform to get people involved in the Back to the Bays Program, which is vital to its success.
Q: Our waters are gorgeous, and our shellfish industry, particularly oysters, but also scallops, seems to be thriving. But your programs are about restoration; how threatened and/or impaired are our bays?
A: We’ve experienced from the 1980s on higher amounts of large-scale algal blooms which can kill off large amounts of eelgrass and shellfish. For now we’re really trying to get those populations back up to sustainable levels. The Peconic Bay’s eastern end and surrounding bays are in relatively good shape, they get lots of natural flushing from the ocean and the sound.
At Cornell Cooperative Extension we are researchers and educators and that’s how we approach the challenges to our bays, like excess nitrogen; at Cornell we’re providing data, and science based information about our bays’ status and trends that can lead to improvements. We’re trying to help to make sure the public has the information needed to make smart decisions, and everyone is aware of their role in the health of our marine ecosystem. Mainly though, we are focused on continuing our enhancement, restoration and education based initiatives that are working to help our bays.
Q: We hear a lot about nitrogen being a problem. Are there other challenges too?
A: Temperature is also an issue, because for example, eelgrass will not grow in places where the temperature is too high, which it often is in the western end of the bay. But we’ve found that Ruppia maritima--widgeon grass-- is a species of aquatic vegetation that tolerates the higher temperatures and has similar habitat values. We prefer to plant eelgrass but where it’s just too hot, we can use Ruppia. We are certainly trying to find solutions to problems that aren’t going away, and adaptively managing our techniques and site selection methods to ensure all of our shellfish and habitat related projects are as successful as possible.
Q: Besides Shellabration, and a custom paddleboard that Greenport Harbor Brewing is raffling off for you, do you have other events this year?
A: We did a ‘30 Ways to Give Back to the Bays’ event series, and Shellabration is the last of our special events for the year. It’s definitely the biggest one, with 1,000 participants expected. All the wristband proceeds are directly supporting Back to the Bays and SPAT, which will really help us enhance and expand our efforts in 2016. Folks are already buying up sponsorships and wristbands and there is a lot of buzz about this popular event. We are very grateful for the community support.