Case Studies

Shellfisher Preserve – Farming shellfish and adapting to changing oceans through social enterprise

The term shellfish refers to filter-feeding mollusks including oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels — most of which thrive along the shore or just a few feet away in nearshore habitats. Thanks to timely and collaborative partnerships initiated by the Peconic Land Trust, shellfish can still be found today and will be found well into the future at the Shellfisher Preserve on Long Island in New York.

As land use shifts in fishing communities from commercial to residential use, environmental integrity, aquatic habitat, and fishing-based livelihoods are increasingly threatened. As these changes take place, land trusts can be instrumental in creating opportunities for collaborative conservation. The Peconic Land Trust was instrumental in preserving the legacy of a long-established shellfishing family. In 1992, the Plock family, together with the Trust, crafted a conservation plan for its property. The conservation plan was an alternate plan to the condo development that was originally envisioned. Instead of losing a legacy of working aquatic lands to development, the land owners worked with the Peconic Land Trust to create a plan that prioritized the most sensitive areas of this property, while the remaining areas were subdivided to be sold. In 1996, after developing the conservation plan with the Trust, the Plock family donated 14 of its 21 acres to the Trust, protecting 14 acres of their waterfront property and selling the other 7. This allowed the family to realize value while also achieving significant conservation goals.

The Preserve not only features exquisite coastal property along Southold Bay, but also includes several lagoons, a Quonset hut, an underground shellfish bunker, and other mariculture facilities. Today the family’s legacy is embodied in what the Shellfisher Preserve stands for: the value of local people and their livelihoods, healthy shellfish populations, and coastal conservation.

Value of the land and habitat

Shellfisher Preserve is located within the Peconic Bay Estuary watershed. The estuary has been characterized by The Nature Conservancy as one of the “Last Great Places in the Western Hemisphere” due to the watershed’s vast number of species coupled with the formerly low amount of development. Today, residential development along Long Island, and particularly within its watershed, threatens the health of the estuary. While estuaries on the whole are considered some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, they are also some of the most sensitive.

Conservation concerns

The once-healthy waters of the Peconic Bay Estuary have faced many challenges. In the mid-1980’s, harmful algae blooms overtook the estuary, turning the waters opaque and disrupting the ecological balance of this system by shading eelgrass and removing the oxygen and beneficial microalgae that shellfish and finfish in the bay depended upon. This weakened the bay’s shellfish viability and led to swift population decline, especially of bay scallops. Significant and comprehensive restoration efforts have improved conditions, but threats to health and species viability persist.

Today, 30 years later, ocean acidification can effect the chemistry in Southold Bay. As greenhouse gas emissions increase globally, roughly 1/4th of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean. This lowers ocean pH and sets off a chain of events that ultimately threatens marine life. Shellfish are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification. Shellfish populations around the country are suffering, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and New England. The impact eventually affects local communities, especially small fishing communities that depend on shellfish as an important source of income. Learn more about changing ocean systems.

What’s being done and how

Shellfish populations around the country are suffering, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and New England. The impact eventually affects local communities, especially small fishing communities that depend on shellfish as an important source of income. Aquaculture, which refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, can be considered an appropriate adaptation strategy that supports shellfish populations and local livelihoods. Learn more about working aquatic lands.

Today, Shellfisher Preserve boasts a robust mariculture operation which is managed by the Peconic Land Trust and leased to the Southold Branch of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative. Activities at the Preserve are also supported by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program. Oysters are cultivated by the Cooperative in the property’s underground hatchery, where they are kept for several months. During this period they are fed algae that is grown in tanks in the property’s greenhouse. After culturing in various nursery systems that use raw bay water, they are transferred to cages and placed in the Peconic Bay Estuary until they are harvested. Once harvested they are sold at a premium to restaurants within the state. A portion of the profits are leveraged to support research and continued restoration projects.

In all of these efforts, the Peconic Land Trust is supporting social enterprise at its best. In taking a broad view of conservation and its relationship to the local economy, the Trust is not only advancing its conservation mission, but is also benefiting local people and their livelihoods all while raising money for related research and restoration efforts. In essence, the Trust is supporting the quadruple bottom-line: planet, people, profit, and purpose.

Current Implementation Status and Next Steps

The property has gone through several iterations of its management structure. As soon as the Peconic Land Trust acquired the property, it partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program, and subleased sections of the Preserve and mariculture facility to local shellfish farmers. Each of the property’s structures were leased to individual tenants. The individual lease payments collectively funded stewardship of the property. As the shellfish farms grew, some of the tenants reorganized and joined the already established Noank Aquaculture Cooperative (NAC). This consolidated the lease-structure so that the property was leased to the Cooperative which handled individual NAC member leases. The lease payment is still funding the property’s stewardship today.

Key Partners

Shellfisher Preserve is an innovative example of collaborative conservation. Founded on the Trust’s relationship with the Plock family, the donation of the family’s property was only the beginning of the Trust’s stewardship efforts. Over the last 30 years, the Peconic Land Trust has had many partners that have contributed to conservation, restoration and management of land on Eastern Long Island.

Partners have included:

Lessons Learned

  • It is important to find the right partners. As an organization with limited time and resources, finding the right people and organizations to partner with was critical to this project’s success. Engaging with partners that share similar values and yet employ different means of reaching objectives can extend everyone’s impact. At the Peconic Land Trust partnering with people and organizations with complementary expertise supported project implementation that met multiple conservation goals.
  • Conservation requires understanding, patience and consistency. It is important to understand the goals and needs of the landowners and work with them on a plan that addresses those requirements and meets conservation goals of the property and the community. This includes taking the long view – at the time of conservation of Shellfisher Preserve, the shellfishing industry was in an unhealthy state. Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of the industry, due to the hard work and diligence of many individuals and organizations – including the Peconic Land Trust.