Protecting & Restoring Long Island's Peconic Bays

Shell Décor Craft Night: Creativity Interlaced with Important Lessons

By Kaitlin Morris

Despite it being a chilly Tuesday evening in mid-December, it was warm, bright, and cheery at the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center, or SCMELC, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Southold facility. It was here that nearly thirty people of all ages gathered to create a little holiday cheer at our Shell Décor Craft Night.

The PEP team was excited to lead this creative outreach event while also incorporating discussions of the Peconic Estuary and the animals and plants that call it home. Equipped with several craft ideas and hundreds of seashells donated by local baymen that were found in the Peconic, we began the evening with a short presentation about the Peconic Estuary and the star of our décor event —Peconic Bay scallops!

Bay scallops, sometimes called “Peconic Gold” by local baymen, are considered a sustainable seafood choice due to their naturally short life cycle. After spawning within the first year of their lives, bay scallops die of natural causes just 18-22 months later. Since they will no longer reproduce and will soon pass away naturally, there is minimal harm to the ecosystem or species when a bayman removes a scallop that has already spawned.

However, just because the fishery can be considered sustainable does not mean that the Peconic Bay scallop population is entirely out of harm’s way! Their numbers have gone through ups and downs over the last century, a most notable decline occurred in the 1930s due to an eelgrass wasting disease that destroyed much of the vital seagrass habitat in the Peconic Estuary. Programs such as Cornell Cooperative Extensions’ Marine Meadows initiative ( works to restore the underwater meadows of eelgrass habitats that are so essential to the estuary’s wildlife and ecosystem.

In 1985 the Bay Scallops faced another threat—brown tide. This harmful algal bloom (HAB) is caused by excess nutrients entering the Peconic Estuary from a variety of sources. These sources may include fertilizer from golf courses, lawns, and farmland, wastewater from septic systems and sewage treatment plants, among others. These excess nutrients feed phytoplankton, or algae, sometimes leading to a harmful algal bloom, an overgrowth of one or more of these species. A HAB can cause a variety of problems including low oxygen levels and low light penetration into the water column. These issues can harm marine life and upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem. HABs can also create the production of toxins that close beaches and accumulate in shellfish, leading to human health risks. Scientists, environmental organizations, policy makers, and citizens must all work together to understand these HAB events and protect the marine and estuarine ecosystems of Long Island.

One way we can help to protect the estuary and the environment as a whole is to reduce and prevent waste, particularly the unnecessary waste that is produced around the holidays. Did you know that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, households in America increase their waste by 25%? Holiday food waste, shopping bags, bows, ribbons, packaging, and wrapping paper contribute to an extra 1 million tons added to our landfills each week (statistics from Just think about how much wrapping paper is stuffed into a large plastic trash bag and tossed to the curb during the holidays—not to mention plastic ribbons, glitter (a micro-plastic), and single-use packaging materials used to ship all those gifts. This dramatic increase in unnecessary waste fills not only our landfills but can also end up in our environment where they can cause harm to ecosystems and wildlife.

The good news is that small changes can make a big difference in the amount of garbage we produce! At our fun décor craft night, PEP provided some ways you can help reduce holiday packaging waste:

  • Upcycle containers: Glass jars, coffee cans, pottery, decorative boxes, reusable shopping bags, and natural wicker baskets all make great gift containers you can find at home or at a local thrift shop. Bonus: You may not even need to wrap these trendy and attractive packages!
  • Rethink your wrap: Old maps, cloth napkins, dish towels, scarves, sheet music, magazines, calendars, and newspapers make beautiful giftwrap. Repurpose shipping materials including bubble mailers, bubble wrap, large envelopes, and boxes rather than tossing them out. You can even use your kids’ artwork for a personal touch!
  • Embellish naturally: Reduce plastic and single-use gift decorations by choosing natural fibers such as cotton or other fabric ribbons, leftover yarn scraps, or natural twine and raffia to tie gifts. Use paper decorations and nametags using recycled holiday cards or origami for a personal touch. Consider foraging outdoors or in your spice cabinet for natural leaves, pine cones, evergreen branches, berries, shells, or spices such as cinnamon sticks and star anise—these make estuary-friendly and all-natural gift garnishes.
  • Reuse the giftwrap you already have: Last but not least, make an effort to reuse giftwrap, bags, tissue paper, ribbons, and boxes you may have laying around from previous years and limit purchases of store-bought giftwrap each year. Reducing our consumption and reusing what we already have makes a big difference.

After discussing these important topics, we got down to business making some estuary-friendly holiday crafts! Using Peconic Bay scallop shells along with other local seashells, sand, and beach glass, participants created a wide range of creative decorations. From stunningly painted scallop shells and seashell angels, to beachy glass orbs and tiny “beach in a bottle,” everyone left with a box of special, estuary-friendly handmade treasures.

Now that it’s January, I find myself reflecting on the lessons we learned during our holiday décor craft night while also thinking ahead to other upcoming celebrations and seasons. How can we better protect the Peconic Estuary and the environment as a whole in this new year? What can we create or repurpose rather than purchase for gift giving for special occasions? How can we celebrate every event and season without compromising the health of our environment? Perhaps a handmade scallop shell heart for Valentine’s Day? Or a spring seashell wreath embellished with beach glass and dried flowers? Biodegradable homemade beauty products stored in repurposed glass jars? Small, every-day changes can add up to a big impact for the environment. Send us your ideas, we’d love to know how you plan to keep your 2019 celebrations and daily life estuary-friendly!


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