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Hard work and science are helping to ensure the health of our bays and shellfish populations. (Credit: David Benthal)

Standing on the bank of Southold’s Cedar Beach Creek, Rich Accurso hoses down a bucket of oysters caked with algae and mud. When he’s finished, he’ll put them back into the water until the algae builds up again and they’re ready for another wash.

The cleaner the oysters, the faster they’ll grow — and the tastier they’ll be.

“I never ate oysters before I came down here,” Accurso said. “The texture is not easy for somebody to warm up to, but once you get the taste for them, you’re hooked.”

For almost nine years, the Cutchogue native has been a member of the Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training Program (SPAT), an initiative of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Fittingly named after the word for juvenile oysters, SPAT was designed to encourage community members to take part in restoring shellfish to the bays. Through this program, Accurso has learned not only to like the briny taste of Peconic Bay oysters, but how to grow them.

“When I came down here, I didn’t know a thing about oysters, but you listen and quickly learn,” he said.

For a nominal fee, program participants are given 1,000 oyster seeds as well as the tools and training needed to start their very own shellfish gardens. Once the oysters are fully grown, members are able to harvest them for personal use — a rarity among restorative shellfish programs.

At the center of the operation is Kim Tetrault — a community aquaculture specialist and the current director of the SPAT program. Tetrault had been running Cornell’s shellfish hatcheries when a curious community member stopped by to ask him what he was doing.

“I gave him a little cup of seed, and he came back with tremendous results,” he said. It was this exchange that catalyzed the community-based shellfish program in 2000. Since then, Tetrault has quite literally built the program from the ground up.

“Everything is done in house,” he explained. “We have a full workshop. We build boats, we fix motors, we build all the equipment …”

With no paid staff, he relies on himself and dedicated members who volunteer their time to keep the facility running smoothly. His most devoted members, including Accurso, are called Blue Hats.

“They’re fully vetted, almost like docents,” Tetrault explained. “I have about 15 members that come in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday year-round, which is kind of crazy — it’s a lot of time.”

Kim Tetrault runs the program with the help of dedicated volunteers. (Credit: David Benthal)

Since its start, the program’s advertising has consisted entirely of word of mouth. Today, there are almost 350 participants in the program. Members can cultivate their underwater farms at Cornell’s main facility in Southold, at one of the program’s three annexes on Long Island or off their own docks (with a special license).

“It’s been pretty impressive to watch over all these years how interested people are,” Tetrault said. “We get new members every year and we get a lot of returning members.”

For some, the novelty of oyster farming is what draws them in. For Accurso, it’s the social aspect that’s motivated him to become a Blue Hat.

“It’s like a club,” he explained. “I enjoy the crowd, so I keep coming.”

For new member Kristen Jock, the decision to sign up boiled down to her concerns for the future.

“The big incentive for me is really existential dread about climate change,” she said.

Jock dreams of becoming an ocean farmer and focusing on sustainability. She started by taking online courses out of her home in Brooklyn. With limited opportunities to grow oysters in the city, she uses the Long Island Rail Road and her electric scooter to get all the way to Southold to maintain her underwater farm. By growing oysters, she hopes to minimize the damage human activity creates in bodies of water.

“We have an issue with nitrogen in our water,” explained Peconic Baykeeper Pete Topping, who has been working to protect and revitalize the Peconic Estuary. When lawn fertilizers and human waste end up in waterways, they cause an excess of nitrogen, which fuels nutrients like algae to grow. While algae is a necessary part of an ecosystem, in abundance, it can cause serious environmental degradation. The densely concentrated algae blooms block other aquatic vegetation from getting sunlight, and when they decompose, an excessive amount of oxygen is taken from the water, causing fish to suffocate and creating dead zones.

“Oysters are really important filter feeders,” Topping explained. Commonly called the ocean’s kidneys, oysters filter out algae and other excess nutrients from the water. A single mature oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water a day.

“They essentially spit out clean water,” Topping said. When oysters are removed from the waters, they take a bit of that nitrogen with them. They also provide natural habitats and protect shorelines from erosion and storms. Compared to other aquaculture industries like fish farming, which can pollute the ocean, oyster farming is a valuable practice both commercially and environmentally. All oyster farmers — regardless of their reasoning behind growing them — are protectors of the environment.

“It didn’t take me very long to realize that if you’re going to get into aquaculture and wanted to be an environmentalist, you had to be a shellfish aquaculturist,” Tetrault explained. “Shellfish aquaculture is ‘au naturel’ — and it’s awesome.”

While SPAT program members are prohibited from selling their harvest, their hard work as stewards of the environment is rewarded with fresh, local oysters.

“Every garden is a spawner sanctuary, so I would rather people protect [the oysters] and do whatever they want with them,” Tetrault explained.

Come harvest time, SPAT members can have their cake (or oysters, in this case) and eat it too.