Q: So tell me, what is SPAT? A: SPAT is the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training, part of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk Marine Program. We’ve been doing SPAT since 2000, it started off quite simply as an open house at the marine center. We invited the public to come listen to a lecture about shellfish gardening.
The program is a combination of a shellfish restoration and shellfish gardening club. Our member gardeners mostly raise oysters, because scallops are very tricky to grow, and clams have to be put in the ground, at which point they’re not really the gardener’s anymore, not the way oysters growing in nets off someone’s dock are. We do grow clams and scallops, and people will dabble. Mostly members grow oysters.
Our mandate is education first and foremost. Everything else is gravy. The fact that you get to grow and keep oysters is big plus, but it’s not the main focus of the program.
Q: Can anyone join, at any time?
A: Yes. We had a new member join yesterday. It’s late in the year though. On Wednesday and Friday, I’m giving my shellfish overwintering lecture, a lecture on the oysters of France and Canada in November and then I don’t give another talk until January, so there’s no hurry to join right now.
The truth of the matter is we offer a different lecture every month, it starts in January and runs through November. I give each lecture twice in the month, to make it easier for members to attend.
Seed is given to members around April or May, depending on how successful the early spawns are. Members get 1000 oysters each, and the normal survival rate is 80% or better.
It’s generally about 18 months to harvest a whole crop, though people do harvest some for Thanksgiving the year they plant. In the wild it would be about 3 years, but with all our tech it takes 18 months.
In general, the membership is about 250 families.
Q: Do you have to live on the water or have a dock you can use to be a shellfish gardener with SPAT?
A: No. You can grow your oysters here at the hatchery.
You’re not allowed to grow in uncertified waters. Everything we grow is in waters clean enough that you can eat safely. So if you want to grow them at your dock, first you have to get a permit, which we help you with. As long as you have a dock and certified or seasonally certified waters you can get your permit.
Once you have your permit, we’d give you the oysters and different nets of the right size mesh. Over time you keep the equipment clean, you move them from one size through the next. The maintenance is like weeding a little. I’ve had a lot of people comment that it’s very similar to land gardening.
You’re not allowed to sell what you grow, but you can eat, give away or plant it. If you wanted to grow commercial, we can help steer you in that way. We’ve helped 7 or 8 oyster farms get launched.
Q: Plant the oysters? You mean, put them out into the wild?
A: Yes. But that’s not SPAT’s focus. Cornell has a full hatchery for planting for town enhancement. Southold has been receiving that seed for over 20 years. As far as plantings go, the other hatchery does the vast majority of the planting.
Q: What’s your connection to SPAT?
A: It’s my program, I started it. I was running the shellfish hatchery at Cornell at the time.
I’d been running their shellfish hatchery from 1995-2000, and it’s pretty magical stuff. As I was carrying on my day, I’d have people just come in and check it out. And they’d get hooked. One day I had one guy come in and say if I got some of the seed, could I grow them off the end of the dock? And I gave him a cup with about a thousand oysters in it and he came back like three months later with these huge, beautiful oysters.
It took off from there. Last year we grew 1 million oysters.
Q: Wow, I’ve never heard of anything like SPAT. Are there a lot of these programs around the country?
A: No. I don’t think there’s another community run shellfish hatchery in the U.S. It was funded and built by community members, and it’s staffed by community volunteers.
There was a guy who was doing a scallop community based restoration program in Westport MA. It’s very difficult to run a program like that. Westport River was spending a tremendous amount of time and money on it and it ultimately went bankrupt when they attempted to start their own hatchery. But it was inspiring, was one of the reasons I started SPAT.
It’s been 15 years we’ve been doing the SPAT program. A lot of places have come asking how do you it in their own communities—places like Cape Cod and New Jersey—but it’s really hard.
We’re not a commercial hatchery, we’re not a university hatchery, and we’re not a town hatchery. We have interesting funding sources—membership dues, grants, and county support. What we have is really unique.
Q: Since it’s so hard to do a program like this, how has it survived for so long?
A: The reason why the SPAT program works, and has worked for all this time, one of thing has to do with the community of the North and South Fork. Part of it is the retirees and other members who want to give back. The members of SPAT have a huge sense of ownership of the program, huge pride and commitment to it.
I have people who’ve been with it for 14 years, have published papers on it. It’s all real. We build it, we run it, we understand it. We just got a grant that we’ll be doing this year that involves many of the members who will help conduct primary research on new hatchery techniques.
My core group are retirees; I have 8-12 people who come in 3 mornings a week year round; who can do that other than retirees? In our program, if you show up, you’re going to be working and it’s always different. It’s a hoot.
One year I went to the international conference on shellfish restoration in South Carolina. I brought 11 SPAT members, and they were hobnobbing with the top of the profession, and they go to conferences all the time now. They’re professionals again.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about oysters. But Peconic Bay was and is famous for scallops. I know the scalloping isn’t what it used to be. What happened?
A: Scallops, well, their biggest problem quite simply is that they have a short life span, so if you don’t get a good set in a given year, it’s very damaging to the whole crop.
Brown tide came in in 1984. What happened was, when the brown tide came in, the scallop larvae didn’t make it. So the next years there was a diminished spawner class. If you have that for a few years in a row, it really wipes them out. It’s always been a roller coaster.
Cornell was granted the largest scallop restoration project ever done. That mandate was to keep in containment a half million scallops so they can spawn. There have been big projects for scallops in Florida that failed. You have to stick with it every year.
I think last year, the loss of a lot of the adults was possibly due in part to what we call a rust tide, a red algae which knocks out the shellfish but isn’t toxic to people like other red tide species.
A lot of people say it’s the nitrogen, and well, there is a lot of nitrogen loading and keeping a system in balance is critical. But scallops’ big problem is that short lifespan, which can greatly determine the standing crop of spawning adults. Many factors can knock back a population of scallops, harmful algal blooms being just one. Not all algae’s bad though, and good algae can feed on that nitrogen loading.
SPAT is really a clearing house for a lot of marine information. In January I give a lecture about algae because we need to grow the good algae. There’s a lot of misinformation out there which we try to clarify.
Q: You told us your connection to SPAT, but what’s your connection to the North Fork?
A: What happened was I used to live out in Southold; I moved there in 84, coming here from Connecticut College. It was the first year of the brown tide. I was helping out on marine projects but paying the bills working as a carpenter. After a few years, I decided to go to grad school, and I went to URI.
That 1984 tide came in to the Peconic Bay and Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. In Peconic Bay it just lingered. After grad school there was an opening at Cornel Cooperative to help restore the scallops. I had been raising scallops in Rhode Island—that was 1994—and I’ve been working with scallops ever since. I started running the Cornell hatchery in 1995.
Q: What do you most like about SPAT?
A: Well, a couple things. I’m an environmentalist first and foremost, and shellfish are nature’s best filter feeder. Even if you don’t like shellfish, you’re doing a good thing for the environment by raising them.
The goal of the SPAT program has always been to nurture community stewardship. Every person that comes into SPAT we want to nurture that instinct in. Even that first SPAT guy, the one I gave the cup of oysters to, said to me, I go down to my dock, and I feel different about the water now. I don’t use toxic chemicals on my lawn, I don’t use toxic paint on my boat.
Tending shellfish brings that out in people.
Another thing I love about SPAT is just the community of it. Because people tend to find us rather than us recruiting them by mass marketing, people tend to be kindred spirits. If you’re not like minded in certain ways you won’t have shown up. We have a great time; it’s a hoot. At the end of the day I’m a big fish in my tiny, tiny puddle. It’s cool, and I’ve met and am surrounded by outstanding people.
(Kim Terault is featured in the last three photographs)