Oyster gardens expected to revitalize Hempstead Harbor

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Oyster gardens expected to revitalize Hempstead Harbor
Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor members and volunteers maintaining the oyster gardens last summer. (Photo courtesy of Martha Braun)

When town councilwoman Mariann Dalimonte was a child, she recalled swimming in Manhasset Bay, peeling clams off the bottom of the water with her feet, diving down to retrieve them and taking them home for her mom to make chowder.

As the cleanliness of the water and the local sea life diminished throughout the North Shore’s coastline, that childhood experience has now become a thing of the past. The Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor in partnership with the Town of North Hempstead is working to change that through oyster gardens.

The coalition will be bringing oyster gardens to North Hempstead Beach Park from July through September. The season ends when the oysters are released into two conservation management areas, one in Hempstead Harbor and the other in Cold Spring Harbor.

Oyster gardens are a collection of cages that float in the water, where young oysters will be placed to grow. The conservation areas where they are released will enable the oysters to continue to to mature as well as contribute to the ecosystem.

The oysters are critical in improving the harbor’s water quality and they foster “a unique habitat that’s very crucial for the local marine ecosystem,” said Martha Braun, the coalition’s oyster garden program manager. The habitat benefits include setting the stage for the oysters to create a sort of nursery for juvenile fish in the harbor.

“They just generally attract and encourage biodiversity,” Braun said. “They’re a key component of our local ecosystem and a restoration priority around here.”

The oysters improve the harbor’s water quality by filtering the water to provide cleaner water. A single oyster can filter upwards of 50 gallons a day, Dalimonte said.

The coalition uses spat-on-shell oysters, which are where the juvenile oysters are attached to an old oyster or clam shell, growing out in clumps. Braun said this is how the oysters naturally grow.

A collection of young oysters. (Photo courtesy of Martha Braun)

The oyster gardens are maintained with the help of volunteers, who come to the sites bi-weekly to clean the cages and measure the oysters’ growth. Measuring the oysters provides the coalition with data on their growth over time to understand how healthy they are.

One of the largest goals of the program is outreach in the community for educational purposes and expanding conservation work.

“Working as a team towards a common goal definitely has an impact on people,” Braun said. “​[This program] has the potential to really bring positive community involvement and make some real impactful environmental change over time.”

The coalition’s oyster garden program started in 2022 with three gardens in the harbor’s east shore. They were located at Tappen Marina, Sea Cliff Yacht Club and the Hempstead Harbour Club.

The new oyster garden at North Hempstead Beach Park will be in addition to the three sites the coalition established last year. They will also be doubling the number of oysters brought into the harbor.

“We’re putting more oysters into protected areas where they’ll provide continual ecosystem services,” Braun said. “The expansion of [the program] means we can reach more volunteers in different places.”

Braun said one of the most important aspects of this program is its ability to bring people together through a common interest in learning more about their environment and doing something to make it better.

“Last year, I think we knew going into it that it was going to be something that was impactful,” Braun said. “But being able to see firsthand the actual process was the most convincing part. I saw people gathering together and just enjoying themselves in pursuit of this common goal. Everyone came together for the purpose of having a part, even if it’s a small part, in restoring their local environment, and they all had this kind of curiosity to know and learn more as they took part.”

While last year’s program was the first for the coalition, Braun said it was a great success. She said the coalition now was interested in expanding throughout the harbor, including on North Hempstead’s west shore. To do so the coalition worked with Dalimonte and the town to work out how it could be established.

Dalimonte said she knew immediately this was a program she wanted to implement.

“This is a great, great project and I really look forward to working with Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor on this project,” Dalimonte said. “I really thank them for contacting me and wanting to do this project with me.”

Dalimonte said she will be volunteering to help maintain the oyster gardens in Hempstead Harbor.

While this summer’s program will not include oyster gardens in Manhasset Bay, Dalimonte said she is taking this volunteer opportunity to learn more about the process so she can potentially implement something similar in the bay.

“The best way to do anything is really understanding the process and learning about it,” Dalimonte said. “That’s why I am going to be a volunteer for Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor with these oyster gardens.”

She said that with her goal of learning through this program and establishing it in Manhasset Bay in the future, the community can foster a “bay to table” initiative, where revitalization of the bay could provide an abundance of seafood that local restaurants could serve.

“This is what I grew up with, and our kids should be growing up with the same thing,” Dalimonte said. “Our kids should be growing up with clean water in Manhasset Bay where you can harvest shellfish from.”

She said establishing this will take many years, but it will make the community economically and environmentally better.

The coalition is accepting volunteers, but does not yet have a specific way for people to sign up for the oyster gardens. People interested can call 516-801-6792 or email [email protected] for more information.

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