All photographs courtesy of Moriches Bay Project
Laura Fabrizio and Aram Terchunian decided to save the world around them over a slice of pizza. The former J. Crew executive and coastal geologist were both frustrated by the polluted waters that surrounded them in Moriches Bay, a lagoon system near their Hamptons’ homes, on Long Island’s South Shore.
Moriches Bay Project Board of Directors. From left to right: Jim Hulme, Dwight Surgan, Laura Fabrizio, and Aram Terchunian
In 2012, these two friends founded the Moriches Bay Project, a grassroots non-profit that uses oyster farming to clean the sludgy waters of the bay. During their first year, the Project launched their campaign with 50,000 oysters which they placed in plastic cages in the bay waters. Oysters act as a filter, and each mollusc has the ability to clean 50 gallons of water. These are worker oysters, and are not intended for human consumption.
Terchunian, a Westhampton Beach-based construction consultant, and Fabrizio, who now runs Coastal Concierge, a luxury home management firm, work with local elementary schools to educate children about the importance of clean water and the role oysters play. The Moriches Bay Project founders, who include their friend Dwight Surgan, also have a partnership with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, a program of Cornell University that provides research support and materials to local environmental groups. It also provides them with their baby oysters.
Last year, the Moriches Bay Project grew exponentially as community volunteers managed to place 750,000 oysters in the bay which now filter more than 3.5 million gallons of water everyday. In total, they estimate that the oysters have filtered more than 40 billion gallons of water last year alone.
“It’s amazing,” Terchunian told New York Makers. “These guys, they work for free, these oysters!
NEW YORK MAKERS: How did you get the idea to start this project?
LAURA FABRIZIO: Aram invited me over for pizza, and all of a sudden it became a creation. We both are very passionate about it. Moriches Bay falls between Southampton and Brookhaven. No one really ever paid attention to it, and we kind of gave it a voice. The community was really excited about it. Both of us have always said, if the community wasn’t interested in doing this, we would not do it. Our motto is ‘we are saving the bay one oyster at a time.’ Making people aware of the problem is half the battle.
NYM: What activities do you undertake this time of year?
LF: We do a bay cleanup where we get our volunteers to come out, and we clean the bay. We pick up the dirt and the trash that has accumulated over the winter months. Also, we do a spring cleanup of all our cages and our barrels, and equipment. By mid May, we invite Yale University alumni for a Yale Day of Service. We set up a couple of different booths: one shows how to make a cage, another about our water monitoring, and another one is about the quality of the water. We invite other people in the community to come too -- Hampton Coffee Company always provides support as does the Surf Shop, Hampton Trading, BNB Bank, and others.
ARAM TERCHUNIAN: It’s all local. It’s very local. People feel a connection to Moriches Bay because they either live here now, or as kids went clamming, water skiing, or sailing.
NYM: Can you take me through each step of putting the oysters in the water? Where do the baby oysters come from?
AT: Our biggest and most important partner is Cornell Cooperative Extension. These guys are the unsung heroes that do all the work behind the scenes. They grow the oyster, they induce oyster sex, they grow the ‘spat’ into the size of a women’s pinky nail. Oysters are free swimming larvae, then they become spat, and start growing a shell, then turn into juveniles and by the time they get to two or three quarters of an inch they are adults. Cornell has a laboratory up in Southold where they grow the oysters from other oysters. Oysters are only male for the first 2 to 3 years of their life, after that all oysters become girls. That’s why maintaining a healthy, robust population is critical because if you lose 2 to 3 years, you lose the entire population. The oysters take nitrogen out of the water, which is a major pollutant. And they reproduce naturally in the wild. Now they are just showing up on their own, which means our sanctuaries are starting to seed into the bay. And this is the real key, to get them to seed on their own.
NYM: You use a Floating Upweller System or FLUPSY, which looks like a kind of oyster incubator and cage. How do you use it to clean the bay waters?
AT: The FLUPSY has a pump that brings up water from the bottom, and brings it right through all of the oyster barrels. They have a mesh in the bottom, and the water flows up through the mesh which contains this very rich algae which is their food. So they gobble this stuff up 24 hours a day. They just never stop eating. They literally grow twice as fast in a FLUPSY than they do floating on the surface.
NYM: What kinds of projects do you do with children?
LF: We do a lot with Westhampton Beach Elementary School. Even though they are very young, they are excited and eager. We gear towards putting together cages. It’s a perfect thing for that age group to do. We go in, we have a little video, with a really cute fun song, so they come in and they're really upbeat and happy, and then we tell them who we are, what we do. We make it very interactive. We bring it down to their level, and it’s good because I do a lot of the classes and I’m not a scientist, so it works out perfectly for me. In the summertime we [typically] do hands-on events, where the kids come out and actually make the oyster farms with us, and their parents.
NYM: If a donor were to give you extra money, what would your vision be about how to spend it to expand your operations?AT: Put more oysters in the bay. Our goal is to produce one million oysters per year. We’re going to have some problems because of COVID-19. We created the infrastructure to produce a million oysters, we just now need to operate that infrastructure. The other thing that we do, we have a real time 24/7 water monitoring system which is the first one ever in Suffolk County.