Now that he’s retired, sort of, Chuck Westfall is living the life he dreamed about as a kid growing up in Wantagh, sailing and catching dinner in the waters of nearby Great South Bay. But he’s not using a pole, line and lure.
“I have no time to fish, I’m an oyster farmer,” Westfall said as he steered his 19-foot skiff away from the dock at Captree Boat Basin in Babylon.
For three decades, Westfall, 65, of Amityville, ran a high-tech Manhattan sound-system business that catered to rock stars and industrial clients.
On a warm July weekday, he and fellow oysterman Sean O’Brien, 32, of Lake Grove, headed for their quiet corner of Great South Bay. It’s a 10-minute ride across open water to Blue Island Oyster Farm, where buoys mark the location of growing oysters, and an eagle-shaped kite flies overhead to frighten away predators.
“It’s very much like a terrestrial farm,” Westfall said, with oysters growing in mesh bags in rows on the bay bottom. The mesh protects the oysters from predatory birds, which could wreak havoc at low tide. An agile figure, Westfall slid from the skiff — which has no seats, for maximum workspace — into knee-deep water. He reached into the murk and hauled up a black mesh bag containing 200 growing oysters. “If you’re lucky,” he said, “50 percent make it to market.”
“These look good because we just processed them,” Westfall said. The young oysters are run through three or four cycles of drying on the dock and treatment for coral or barnacles that attach to their shells.
Westfall co-owns and operates Blue Island Oyster Farm with Chris Quartuccio, 52, of Sayville, on 5 acres of bay bottom leased annually for $780 per acre from the Town of Islip. (Westfall also owns and works Thatch Island Oyster Farms, on 2.5 nearby acres, also leased from the Town of Islip.) The partners raise, process and send to market hundreds of thousands of oysters annually, at 55 cents to 65 cents apiece. Their products are slurped down with lemon and hot sauce at restaurants and oyster bars such as The Little Creek Oyster Farm in Greenport.
Ian Wile, owner of Little Creek, who buys oysters from 20 local farms, said Westfall’s Thatch Island oysters are “not overly sweet or overly salty.” Wile said that Westfall is a good advocate for oyster growers around the Island.
As gulls cried above, Westfall and O’Brien toiled amid a 360-degree panorama. Landmarks such as the Fire Island lighthouse are visible on the horizon.
“It’s pretty pleasant on a day like today,” said Westfall, who is bronzed from long days in the sun. But this “retirement job” is a four-season operation. “Think of this on March 15, when we’re also out here,” Westfall said.
Westfall is one of the pioneers in the revival of Blue Point oysters — the name for the legendary bivalves grown in Great South Bay, once produced for worldwide consumption. The industry began to die out after the hurricane of 1938. However, Westfall is doing more than trying to turn a profit on the water. He’s also an environmentalist, and believes that oyster farming will help to clean up the waters of the South Shore. Other benefits for this dedicated farmer include robust health — he says he’s in the best shape in his life — and all the oysters he can eat.
Quartuccio, a former Long Island Sound commercial oyster diver, credits Westfall with tripling the farm’s output since he took over daily operations in 2010.
“He turned a small boutique oyster farm I started in 2004, which produced 150,000 to 250,00 oysters a year and seven years ago, grew it into a much larger operation with 500,000 oysters a year,” said Quartuccio, who is also chief decision maker with Blue Island Oyster Co. It’s based in West Sayville and has offices in Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Many of the seed oysters Westfall raises come from the West Sayville Hatchery at Blue Island, which is also part of Quartuccio’s company. Blue Island oysters from Long Island are shipped all over the United States, Quartuccio said.
Westfall might have missed his later-life calling but for a serious illness at age 11. (He doesn’t recall what it was.) “My mother was upset, so I realized I could leverage this into getting a puppy,” he said. His father, an airline pilot who had woodworking skills, nixed the puppy idea but promised something better — to build him a sailboat from scratch.
“It was quite the machine,” Westfall said of the 14-foot skiff his father custom designed with wood from a Freeport lumber yard. Launching the boat from Seaford and later Wantagh Park, Westfall spent summers sailing in the bay and enjoying the bounty of Long Island’s waters.
“We’d get clams and net crabs,” he said, recalling his maritime adventures with friends. “Flounder used to run constantly.” Clams were found by “squishing around with your feet” at the shoreline. “In a short period of time, you could bring home dinner,” Westfall said.
After graduating in 1970 from Gen. Douglas MacArthur High School in Levittown, he rebuilt a motorcycle and headed to California. “I wanted to see America,” he said. The trek was influenced by the 1969 movie “Easy Rider,” but the cross-country trip ended when his bike broke down in Phoenix. He stayed in Phoenix and in 1976 earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Arizona State University in Tempe.
Deciding the electrical engineering field was not for him, Westfall, instead, took a job as a stagehand back in Manhattan. At the time, rock concerts were booming and becoming more high-tech. With skills learned in college, Westfall found work setting up top-of-the-line sound equipment for groups such as Crosby, Stills and Nash.
In 1979, he founded Tapestry, his own company. “I was a good technician and could repair and modify things,” Westfall said.
At its peak, Tapestry had six employees and provided audio production services for special events such as a promo featuring bikini-clad models floating down the Hudson River on an artificial iceberg, sponsored by Smirnoff Ice, a malt beverage. He also set up Central Park’s SummerStage for acts such as Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band of Letterman fame.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center “knocked the business for a loop,” Westfall downsized the company, but still accepted some freelance work. Meanwhile, he developed an interest in oyster farming.
Over the years Westfall had become concerned with water quality in Great South Bay, and he decided to do something constructive about it. “I started reading about the oyster and its good impact on the environment at the same time the Town of Islip was coming up with a lease program” for oyster farming, he said.
But he knew nothing about the industry. After a little Googling, he found the Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training (SPAT), run by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. He took a summer course in 2008 with SPAT, raising oysters for the first time in tanks and alongside docks at a Southold facility, and learning the “bag culture” method, one of the oyster-farming techniques he uses today.
About 18 months ago, Westfall completed the last of his freelance sound work and became a full-fledged oyster farmer. He figures he spends 30 hours a week in the water or at the dock. He and his wife, Ruth Westfall, 64, have a grown daughter. Ruth Westfall is an assistant director for member and technology services for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and supports her husband’s mission, albeit with a sense of humor.
“I’ve always wanted to be a farm wife,” she said, adding, “I like the whole concept of farming but I probably would do it with chickens or sheep.” She thinks oyster farming “is a really good lifestyle because he’s active, he likes being outside, and he loves being in the water.”
Back on the dock, Westfall spilled a pile of small oysters onto an outdoor table.
“People expect an oyster to be perfect,” he said, holding up a small specimen. Using a clam knife, he pried opened the shell, and scraped the meat into an edible ball. “This deep cup is what you’re looking for,” Westfall said, holding up the half-shell with the oyster glistening inside. In this particular oyster, the meat, he said, “is like an oblong marble. It has a texture and taste that’s pleasing.”
Westfall, in January, was elected president of the 3-year-old Long Island Oyster Growers Association, which represents about 80 farmers in Nassau and Suffolk counties. He said that although oyster farming is hard work, he enjoys it as a “retirement gig.” Westfall would like his younger partner to make a career of it.
“Oysters filter the bay. If I and others can make money at this, then others will follow and we’ll have advocates for a clean bay,” Westfall said. “I hope that I’ll be able to look back on this in another 10 years and say I did some good.”
OYSTER FARMING ON THE GREAT SOUTH BAY
The Blue Island Oyster Farm is open every Saturday. For a fee, visitors get a ride from Captree State Park, learn about oyster farming history from Westfall, and shuck and eat oysters. They can also kayak in the bay. Cost, $100 per person; 631-563-1330, blueislandoyster.com.