Making An Environmentally Friendly Idea, More Environmentally Friendly

Sundy and Michael Schermeyer

Oyster “gardening” has become an increasingly popular activity across the East End among waterfront homeowners and those who participate in the new community gardens organized by Southampton and East Hampton towns and by the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Environmental advocates have touted the growing of oysters in floating cages as a good way to connect residents to the workings of local estuarine ecosystems and say the growing oysters are both a water quality elixir, as they filter algae and nutrients out of the water, as well as an engine for growing wild stocks when they spawn within their confined growing cages.

But the practice is not without it’s environmental hiccups.

The cages or mesh bags are generally made of plastic. They are typically kept afloat with foam swimming pool noodles that degrade over time and shed bits of plastic into the water, and the cages are held shut with plastic zip ties, which must be cut regularly to open the bags and clean or sort the oysters.

So a Westhampton Beach couple have introduced a solution they hope will make oyster gardening across the region more environmentally friendly and lower maintenance than the traditional bags.

Using a mix of lightweight and durable woods with stainless fasteners, the “Bay Box” oyster boxes developed and manufactured by Michael and Sundy Schermeyer, eliminate the need for flotation and plastic zip ties and, they say, do not become fouled with seaweed inside them the way the plastic bags do.

“I was looking at a wooden eel box I had, it was probably 50 years old and it was still in good shape, and I figured we could build an oyster box just like it that would float, that doesn’t create micro plastics and I think will hold up much better,” Michael Schermeyer said. “And it will be easier to tend your oysters. You just open up the top and take them out. And they look a lot nicer than the black plastic with the noodles on them.”

Mr. Schermeyer, a former surfboard shaper, and Ms. Schermeyer, the Southampton Town clerk, have turned their idea into a commercial venture. The Moriches Bay Project, which has been shepherding West Hampton Dunes residents’ growing of tens of thousands of oysters each year that are then released into the bay, has purchased 14 of the new boxes and put them to work with some of their participants on Saturday morning.

The effort to find a more environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing replacement for the plastic cages won a cheerleader in the leader of the region’s largest oyster gardening program, Cornell’s SPAT program.

“I have to admit — and I’ve been doing oyster growing for 30 years — the cable ties and the swim noodles are really environmentally no-no stuff, but it’s very hard to get away from them,” said Kim Tetrault, director of the Cornell Cooperatie Extention’s SPAT program, which helps residents of the two forks get started in oyster growing. “Well, this gets away from them. This was an idea that is very environmentally friendly. It’s all wood, there’s no flotation.”

Ms. Schermeyer said that she and her husband are still tinkering with the designs, and working on ways to bring down the $125 cost, which is significantly higher than that of the plastic bags and pool noodles traditionally used, so that commercial growers might be able to switch to wood cages as well.

For someone who is going to have the box floating in the water behind their home, she surmised, the nice appearance of the wood and easier access to the oysters inside, may be worth the cost — like it was for the creators themselves.

“The sea squirts and seaweed and all that other stuff doesn’t really adhere to the wood like they do the plastic, so we did six boxes the other day in about 20 minutes and we weren’t even dirty,” Ms. Schermeyer said. “We could have gone straight to lunch from there. Usually we have to go home and take a shower because you are covered head to toe in gunk.”