It’s the first day of winter.
Many farmers have let out a sigh of relief after another grueling season. Perhaps they’ve put away the equipment, their sights set on warmer weather.
Not Karen Rivara.
For the marine biologist and president of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, early winter is high time for oyster spawning at the 14-acre Shellfisher Preserve in Southold. Standing in a brightly lit subterranean room affectionately known as “the bunker,” Rivara is surrounded by beakers of lime-green and orange algae bubbling away. Eventually, the algae will provide sustenance for the three or four million oyster spat that will become creamy, metallic Peconic Pearls (Little Creeks and Southold Shindigs) served on the half shell across the East End.
Rivara has been running a hatchery here, on land preserved by the Peconic Land Trust, since 2000.
From the bunker, Rivara navigates a truck to a covered barn located on the bay. Inside, oysters stand a chance at surviving the winter. Amid a crash course in local geography and history, Rivara remarks that she feels indebted to the property’s prior owners, the Plock family of Shelter Island Oyster Company.
Founded by John Plock in 1935, the facility was shuttered in the late 1970s. The land was donated to the Peconic Land Trust in 1996. “It preserved a nice piece of working waterfront we can use,” she said. “There’s not much left on the East End.”
Rivara, 59, first became enamoured with marine science as a tween whose eyes were glued to Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World. “I liked science and biology and French guys in Speedos,” she said, cracking a smile. “It was intriguing because it was so different, being underwater.”
A native of a small town along Lake Erie in Chautauqua County, Rivara came to Long Island to enroll in the marine science program at Long Island University’s Southampton campus. Initially, she was drawn to the romance of working on the water, with her hands. “It was tangible. There’s no theory. It is what it is,” she said, recalling her first jobs working in a Shinnecock hatchery and at the now-defunct Blue Point Oyster Company in the 1980s.
Though outnumbered by men in the industry, she climbed the ranks. “It wasn’t a hostile working environment. But it was still a good old boys club. So there were a few times …” she said, trailing off.
“I did what every woman did in my generation when they were working with all men. You work harder to prove yourself. But it was work I enjoyed, so I didn’t care.”
At Blue Point, a male coworker tipped her off that she wasn’t getting paid as much as some of the guys, despite doing the same work. “Then I went up to the office every year and got a raise. I was only there for three years. There was no room for me at the top. My appetite to do my own thing, that’s sort of my personality, so I left.”
After leaving Blue Point, there was an attempt to jump-start a business in Connecticut. Some of the initial allure wore off.
“It all fell apart,” she said of the venture. As soon as they had a marketable crop, disease hit. “Everything was wiped out.”
With a newfound grit, Rivara went on to form the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative and Aeros Cultured Oyster Company in the basement of her business partner’s home in Shirley.
Thirty years since her first foray into mariculture, some of the magic remains. “I’m always fascinated when I look at larvae under the microscope. It’s just like, an addiction,” she said, anxious to get to work.
Growing shellfish in a hatchery ensures a sustainable crop without impacting any wild populations. Yet each year presents different challenges. Consider 2018: a damp, cold spring with little growth until early May. “I was in total panic mode,” she said. “But that’s farming.”
You can’t control weather, but water quality is directly impacted by human actions. During her three-year tenure as president of the Long Island Farm Bureau — the first woman to lead the organization — Rivara made water quality a hallmark issue. “The land-based farmers were looking at legislation that would have dictated how much nitrogen they could put on their land. Growing shellfish on Long Island, I knew that for the most part, the problem wasn’t the farms. It’s the residents. Going after the farms … it’s like going after low-hanging fruit.”
She worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension and Stony Brook University on an effort to educate residential homeowners on how to be better stewards of the estuary, because she knows what could happen if farms shut down.
“That farmland gets converted into houses, and that subsequent housing development is going to put more nitrogen into the estuary than the farm did,” she said. “We’ve become so detached from nature that we don’t understand farming.”
Shellfish lovers can promote bay-saving work by indulging in Peconic Pearls, which are grown and cultivated by Rivara along with her business partner, Melanie Douglass. Five cents from every bivalve sold goes to projects that benefit the Peconics.
Since getting started, the industry has shifted. More people — more women — are drawn to the allure of farming both land and sea. With the hatchery providing seed and spat, less stress is put on the wild population. Shellfish used to be found in the Peconic Estuary in huge numbers.
“We’re helping to bring that back, and helping water quality, too. It’s rewarding. You’re involved in that miracle of life,” Rivara said.
It’s not something she takes lightly.