A Conversation with John Shaka



     By Stephen J. Kotz

John Shaka, the new chairman of the Harbor Committee, talks abut his committee’s work and his efforts “to increase water quality awareness and literacy” among Sag Harbor residents by, among other things, hosting a presentation on the topic next week.

So, you are breaking from your typical meeting routine and bringing in speakers to talk about water quality? Who are they?

Dr. Alison Branco, the director of the Peconic Estuary Program, and Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy. Dr. Branco is a marine biologist. She will be able to give us very scientific information about what the trends are, what the problems are. The Nature Conservancy has been involved with water quality issues for many years, and Kevin will be able to tell us about the kinds of policies we as a community can adopt to make it right. She’ll bring the science to the table, and I think he’ll bring a pragmatic approach.

How did this come about?

We saw this past spring fish dying in Riverhead by the thousands. We know half of the Great South Bay is dead, and that will come this way if we don’t do something about it. I’m trying to something to increase the public’s awareness.

I set this up as a regular work session. Essentially, I invited them in to help educate the committee members about what we should be striving for. It occurred to me the audience could be much bigger. [Mayor Sandra Schroeder] has been completely supportive, and when I passed this idea onto her, she immediately said, “Do it and I’ll be there and try to get as many people there as possible.”

One of the Harbor Committee’s roles is to act as liaison between the public and other committees and organizations, so this fits nicely with that.

What would you say is the Harbor Committee’s primary role?

Our job is to look at what the new wetlands law says, what its purpose is, and to apply it as appropriately as possible without being unfair to the residents of Sag Harbor.

We look at things like buffers with native plants that not only protect the water from fertilizers and other nutrients but provide habitat and resiliency against rising water and storm waves better than, say, a rose bush. If we protect the wetlands by moving septic systems away from them, maintaining adequate setbacks for structures, and taking other steps, ultimately we’ll protect the quality of the surface waters in the cove and bay.

Earlier this year, the village tightened the restrictions for wetlands permits. How is the new law working?

So far so good. It has clarified that the Harbor Committee makes decisions about all wetlands permits, so that is no longer a murky area. The new law puts the responsibility on the applicant to do everything they can to meet the standards. It’s going to take the public awhile to get used to this new approach. We want to be fair to applicants but uphold the spirit and the letter of the law.

How did you get interested in the topic of water quality?

I’m a swimmer, I paddleboard and I’m also a kayaker, but I became more interested in the topic through the Cornell Cooperative oyster spat program. Southampton Town provides space over near Bay Point. A group of us, including Joe Trembley, who is also a member of the committee, have what we call our oyster garden there.

Through that, I started to become more aware of the quality of the water and what that does to the things that live in the water. Each oyster filters 40 gallons of water daily. What they excrete fertilizes the eelgrass, and the eelgrass provides habitat for crabs, mussels, and small fish. The eelgrass also helps provide resiliency during storms.

Last year, Mayor [Brian] Gilbride named me to the Harbor Committee. There was a lot I did not know so I started to go to various meetings of things like the Peconic Estuary Program, Southampton Town’s water plan and that kind of thing.

When you learn about it, it’s common sense. And I guess that’s what led to this.

The Harbor Committee’s forum on water quality takes place at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, October 19, at the Municipal Building. The public has been invited to attend.