Being in, on and around the water is a central theme in Reed Kelsey’s life.
He earned his boating license as young as they’ll give them out — at the age of 10 — and used to boat to work from his home in Sag Harbor for his summer job teaching watersports on the North Fork when he was 15, because he wasn’t old enough to drive a car yet. He also surfs, wakeboards and has his advanced open water scuba diving certification.
So it makes sense that the Pierson senior has become a passionate advocate for preserving and protecting the health of the local bays and waterways.
In September, Kelsey embarked on a shellfish restoration project out of Mill Creek Marina in Noyac, where he has worked for the past five summers alongside his father, Glenn Kelsey, and uncle, Jeff Kelsey, who run the marina together, having taken it over from Kelsey’s grandfather Fred Kelsey, who bought it in 1981.
On a family trip to Stuart, Florida, a year ago, Kelsey noticed a plaque with information about an oyster reef restoration project in that area, which harnessed the natural ability of oysters to filter and clean the water and thus improve the habitat for several marine species. It was something that appealed to Kelsey immediately — and he knew the marina would be the perfect place to embark on a similar effort.
Upon returning home from that trip, Kelsey delved into research and before long had learned about Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training — SPAT for short. He reached out to Kim Tetrault, Cornell’s community aquaculture specialist and the founder and director of SPAT, and visited the facility in Southold.
Once he learned that one adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water daily, his determination to start a restoration project at the marina was solidified.
“Once I saw what they were doing and having success, I thought I should bring it home and try to do it here,” Kelsey said. “My mom always tells me that when you want to have an impact, you need to think globally but act locally.”
Putting that desire to make positive change in the local maritime environment into action required officially partnering with SPAT and obtaining a license from the State Department of Environmental Conservation to collect and possess shellfish.
While many SPAT members raise and tend to their pots of shellfish seedings out of the facility in Southold, Kelsey obtained the DEC license so he could bring the seedlings to the marina in Noyac. Now, part of Kelsey’s routine includes caring for the oysters, which start out as seedlings the size of a pea before reaching maturity anywhere from 18 to 24 months later.
Kelsey is also growing bay scallop seedlings, as a way to help boost the Peconic bay scallop population, which has suffered from a concerning die-off in recent years, likely due to climate change. The bay scallops are not as effective at filtering water as the oysters, and they require a different kind of care. Unlike the oysters, which can be power-washed off with regular water from a hose, the bay scallops cannot be treated with tap water — they will die.
Kelsey can be found spraying down the oysters at the marina every two to three weeks, washing off the accumulated grime and film on their shells, and then placing them back in the nets. He washes the bay scallops carefully, in bay water, before placing them back in their underwater nets as well, which are anchored with zip ties to the dock.
Once they’ve reached maturity, Kelsey will free them all from the nets, where they will release their spawn to promote wild settlement.
Local boat owners at the marina took notice of what Kelsey was doing, so he decided to start a fundraiser for SPAT. He ended up being the top donor of the year for the organization, raising more than $11,000. That money will help pay for equipment and supplies needed to ensure the program continues to thrive.
To Kelsey, the hours he spends every month painstakingly raising and caring for the oysters and scallops is the least he can do to give back to the area that has given him so much.
“I think it’s really about prolonging how we can keep the eastern end of Long Island pristine for future generations,” he said. “I think a lot of people will want to come back here when they grow up and see it as beautiful and amazing as it is today. It’s a simple way to keep the water clean with minimal investment and just using naturally occurring species.
“I’ve always loved the water and the beaches and bays, growing up around it, so that’s what pushed me,” he added. “I’d be around the water anyway, so I might as well have a positive effect and try to make it last as long as it can.”
Tetrault said that Kelsey’s efforts are not only important because of what the shellfish project will do for the local environment in the short term, but because of the ripple effect, he believes it will have on Kelsey’s peers.
“People like him are so critical to his generation,” he said. “We need people like him to protect the environment and spread the word to his age group. It’s critical for the youth to be passionate about saving the environment, and he has a very clear understanding of the need for that kind of commitment.
“His peers will look at him and will want a piece of the action too, and will want to step up more to the plate.”