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Growing culture: Oyster farming's resurgence on Long Island

Sue Wicks played basketball for Rutgers and the Liberty, set multiple records, appeared in several championship games and eventually was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. On Nov. 3, Wicks talked about her current passion: She owns and operate Violet Cove Oyster Co. Credit: Randee Daddona) (Photo Credits: Newsday / John Keating; Richard Slattery

Josh Clauss smiles as he hands out plates of fresh oysters on the half shell.

“You’ve got to try these,” he says proudly. “They’re sweet, delicious and the absolute perfect size. I grow them myself right here on the North Fork in the beautiful waters of Hog Neck Bay.”

It’s a late fall evening at the final First Friday celebration of the year on charming Love Lane in Mattituck. The street is closed to vehicular traffic in favor of a variety of pop-up food, drink and gift stands, live music and friendly conversation. A substantial line has formed of people waiting for the freshly shucked delights that Clauss, proprietor of Harvest Moon Shellfish Co. in Cutchogue, is selling by the half-dozen. Refreshingly passionate about his work, Clauss provides bivalve background, the crowd listening intently as he explains the planning and work that bring the shellfish to market.

Long Island oysters and oyster farming are a hot topic these days, especially among those who love to eat the sweet, slightly buttery-tasting shellfish, and those who hope the bivalves may play an increasingly important role in helping clean local waterways.

Shellfish revival

A driving force of Long Island’s economy more than half a century ago, the rough-edged, sweet-fleshed shellfish had virtually disappeared from local waters by the 1950s because of factors including overharvesting, changes in water salinity and degradation of habitat. Today, a new set of oyster farmers has taken hold, raising the tasty treats instead of harvesting them from the wild. More farmers are entering the industry; state Department of Conservation figures show On/Off-Bottom Culture Permits, required for all oyster farmers on Long Island, have risen yearly since 2015, when 63 permits were issued, to 2018, when 82 permits were issued.

Much of the growth in the oyster industry has been aided by cutting-edge shellfish research and technology developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Research Facility in Southold. “Among other items,” said Gregg Rivara, an aquaculture specialist in the extension’s Suffolk County office, “we developed a floating upweller nursery system in the 1990s to raise oysters and clams.” The “FLUPSYs” used by many shellfish farmers increase the water volume, and thus the plankton (food), delivered to young oysters in a farm setting, he explained.

The reborn oyster trade has attracted diverse and eclectic entrepreneurs who also talk about working for the good of the industry and environment. Many in the tight-knit but growing circle list their ultimate goals as not only reaching profitability, but refining raising oysters to produce a more perfect product, reseeding waters to encourage wild oyster growth, and using the filter feeders to help clean the estuarine environment.

“There does seem to be a special kind of person that’s cut out for this job,” said Clauss, 37, a former commercial fisherman from Cutchogue with a degree in biology. “It’s hard work, and you need to keep a positive attitude while looking several years ahead to project earnings. Mostly, you have to love being around the water and have no fear of physical labor.”

No two farms or farmers, it seems, are exactly alike. Still, the basics are fairly consistent. After acquiring a lease to “farm” specific underwater acreage, oyster growers purchase spat (baby oysters) from a hatchery and grow them to between one-half and 1 inch in size under controlled conditions. At that point, most farmers place their potential crop in plastic mesh bags and load them into growing racks or cages that hold them on the bottom in open water or suspended at the surface. There the oysters feed on plankton they filter from the water. Adult oysters can each strain up to 50 gallons a day — great for the environment considering that some oyster farms have the potential to produce more than 1 million oysters a year.

More than meets the eye

As the oysters continue to grow, they are regularly cleaned, “tumbled” and sorted, either on a boat or on shore. Sorting, by hand or mechanically, keeps oysters consistent in size for a similar appearance when shipped to market 18 to 24 months hence. Tumbling requires placing the oysters in a rotating cylindrical chamber that chips off new growth and sharp edges, encouraging a rounder, more uniform shape and a deeper pocket that holds larger oyster meats than are found in the wild. Oysters in the tumbler can drop through various-size holes in the chamber, sorting themselves by size. Once tumbled and sorted, oysters that are large enough to harvest are quickly packed for shipping while the smaller ones are returned to the racks, bags or underwater beds.

Oyster farmers also must taken care of the business end: finding distribution points to consumers, restaurants and seafood stores; figuring out how to transport harvest to market; navigating permits and accounting; building a brand name.

“There is more to this than meets the eye,” Clauss said with a laugh, adding that everyone tackles it their own way.

Clauss’ farm, for example, is in Little Peconic Bay, on the border between the bucolic villages of Peconic and Southold. It’s an ideal place for oysters, he explained, because three spring-fed freshwater creeks spill into the bay nearby. The creeks ensure plenty of plankton for the oysters to feed on, especially early in the year when they are warmer than the surrounding bay waters.

Clauss uses a rack and bag system to grow his oysters 25 feet deep. Individual racks rest on the bay bottom, their oysters growing from 1 inch to a market size of 2 to 3 inches. When it’s time to clean, sort, tumble and gather them for harvest, a mechanical hoist lifts the heavy racks to the surface, where they are placed aboard Clauss’ 26-foot oyster boat.

“You really need to be flexible in this job,” Clauss said. “Things are always changing and breaking. You need to adjust on the fly, putting out fires ranging from fixing boats to replacing lines and repairing equipment. But that’s also one of the best things about this job — no two days are alike and you are always thinking on your feet. It never gets boring.”

A family tradition

Clauss had a leg up in the business after working for the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program for several years, raising scallops to reseed Peconic Bay and experimenting with raising oysters as well. Sue Wicks, on the other hand, had only a year’s experience growing oysters when she launched Violet Cove Oyster Co. on Moriches Bay.

Wicks, 53, of Center Moriches, is a former all-pro professional basketball player and member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame whose 16-year career spanned the WNBA, European and Asian leagues. She got into the business after her brother put her in contact with Moriches Bay oyster farmer Paul McCormick, of Great Gun Shellfish Co., for whom he had done contracting work. She worked on his oyster farm, and two years later had her own 2-acre lease.

“My dad was a bayman,” said Wicks, “so being on the water is part of my heritage. I knew about fishing and clamming, but little about oysters other than I had been interested in the idea of farming them for about a decade. For me the timing was right, so I just went for it.”

Wicks uses no heavy machinery, relying instead on her own strength, dexterity and a hand from Mother Nature. Her farm is between Moriches and New inlets on a shallow, hard, sandy flat along the north side of Moriches Bay, an area with plenty of current that is also fed by two freshwater rivers. She raises oysters in floating cages that rely on wave action to gently rock the oysters, chipping off the outer shell and giving them a deep, full cup without the need for additional tumbling. The wave action, she explained, also causes the oyster’s adductor muscle to grow larger, stronger and store more glycogen in the winter months, providing a sweeter taste than oysters in the wild.

“I love being on the water every day,” said Wicks, who has just wrapped up her second year as a full-time oyster farmer. “The physicality reminds me of my sports past. I love using my body, coming home feeling fatigued from physical labor and testing my own limits as I grow older. To some degree, I feel Mother Nature is my competitor. You battle her tides, storms, algae blooms and other elements. Yet she is also my partner, providing the necessary ingredients for a successful set.

“I also love the nurturing aspects of raising a crop,” she said. “There’s a lot of time involved with growing your oysters to market size so it does get personal on some level.”

Increasing demand

In the waters of Shinnecock Bay, Jonathan Smith, an American Indian who is part of the Shinnecock Nation and owner of Shinnecock Oyster Farms in Southampton, also sets his oysters in shallow water. He uses an upwelling system that forces high volumes of water up into a silo in which the spat are housed. The increased flow brings the baby oysters more food than tidal action can deliver, getting his crop off to a quick start.

“We lease a shallow section of Shinnecock Bay,” said Smith, 59. “Once our oysters reach a half-inch to 1 inch long in our upwelling system, we simply scatter them on the bottom in shallow water. It’s a simple system, really, but it is vulnerable to our oysters being washed up onto the shore during severe storms, so we might add a small corral next year just to keep them better confined.”

The cleaner water in eastern Shinnecock Bay, noted Smith, results in a sweet, mild-tasting oyster. “You’ll find none better,” he said with obvious pride. He said increased demand for his oysters has set in place plans for an oyster grill on Montauk Highway near the Shinnecock Smoke Shop next summer.

“We’re very optimistic about the future of oyster farming here on Long Island,” Smith said.

While most Long Island oyster farms are on the East End and in Great South and Moriches bays, the husband-and-wife team of Kerrin and Mike Craig of Miller Place, both 58, are making a go of it in the Sound just outside of Mount Sinai Harbor. They got into the oyster business in 2002 after the Long Island Sound lobster die-off in1999 forced Mike, a lobsterman, into a career change.

“We raise our oysters in deeper, cooler waters than most other farms,” Mike said, noting that environment gives East End Oysters, which they sell to New York City restaurants, a crisper taste. “We market them as Lazy Mermaid oysters, and they really are something special to try.”

The Craigs set their crop in large racks on the bottom weighing as much as 1,500 pounds, including their cargo of oysters, and use an A-frame boom to lift the racks onto their 42-foot fishing vessel. It is challenging work, Mike admitted, but it’s been fruitful, with the farm producing upward of 400,000 oysters a year.

“We enjoy working as a team, dealing with nature and being on the water every day,” Kerrin said. “We like making our own decisions as to when to buy seed, when to pull the racks, when to tumble and how much work to schedule for each day.

"On the other hand," she said, "you really have to love the water to head out on a cold and rainy December day, so this job isn’t necessarily for everyone.”

For those who thrive on hard work, though, oyster farming cultivates a sense of being part of something special — a community that toils in Long Island’s waters with love and respect for nature while building an appreciation for restoring a long-retired industry.

“I’m really impressed by the diversity and resolve of everybody involved,” Wicks said. “We understand the value of hard work, we pull together to help each other and to grow the industry, and most seem to care deeply about the environment.

“I’d love to see oyster farming continue to thrive,” she said. “I want to see it help clean our waters, and I’d like to see wild oysters repopulate our estuaries as they did in the past — even if that might be somewhat detrimental to my own business.”

CORRECTION: Gregg Rivara is an aquaculture specialist in the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Suffolk County office. His name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Getting started

Interested in becoming an oyster farmer? There is still plenty of room in Long Island's rebounding industry, which the state Department of Environmental Conservation estimates has 50 to 60 active oyster farms. Experts suggest prospective farmers start small: plan to try it a year or two before jumping in full scale.

While no special courses or degrees are required, arranging to lease bay bottom and obtaining permits can take two years or more. Depending on the entity — town, county, state or private — leases can be relatively inexpensive, with some acreage as low as $25 an acre per year.

Leasing

For state land, contact the DEC’s Shellfish Management Unit at 631-444-0481 or fw.marine@dec.ny.gov. For questions about Suffolk County’s Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program, contact Susan Filipowich, environmental planner, at 631-853-4775 or susan.filipowich@suffolkcountyny.gov. For town leases, contact individual towns. If you don’t know who owns the land you want to lease, contact a Shellfish Ombudsman at the DEC’s Region 1 Headquarters in Stony Brook, ‪631-380-3311‬‬‬‬‬‬‬.

Permits

Shellfish aquaculture farming requires a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit and a DEC Culture Permit. Visit DEC’s website, dec.ny.gov/outdoor/110882.html#OnOff-Bottom_Culture_Permit.

Selling

Oyster farmers sell wholesale, directly to the public, to restaurants and seafood markets. A recent development on the oyster sales front is a farmstand format now permitted in Southold Town. “This opens the door for oyster growers to sell more product, make their oysters more readily available to the public, and get a better price than when selling wholesale,” said Matt Ketcham, owner of Peconic Gold Oysters. “It should also help with name recognition.”

Ketcham has an oyster stand right on his property that is open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily. You can’t eat oysters on the half shell there, but you can buy them whole or shucked by the pint or quart.
More information

• Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County Marine Program, ccesuffolk.org/marine/aquaculture.

• Long Island Oyster Growers, liogany.org.

— Tom Schlichter

A sampling of oyster farms

  • Harvest Moon Shellfish Co., Cutchogue, Josh Clauss, owner; 561-441-1617; Facebook: Harvestmoonshellfishco; HarvestMoonShellfish@gmail.com
  • Violet Cove Oyster Company, Center Moriches, Sue Wicks, owner; 917-767-2818; Instagram: @violetcoveoysterco
  • Shinnecock Oyster Farms, Southampton, Jonathan Smith, owner; 631-747-4175; Facebook: Shinnecock Oyster Farms; Nunpa2@gmail.com
  • East End Oysters, Mount Sinai, Mike and Kerrin Craig, owners; 631-831-2217; marinermc@aol.com
  • Great Gun Shellfish Co., Center Moriches, Paul McCormick, owner; Instagram: @greatgunshellfish
  • Ketcham’s Oyster Stand, 21125 County Road 48, Cutchogue, Matt Ketcham, owner; 631-495-7061; Instagram: @peconicgoldoysters; Facebook: Peconic Gold Oysters
— Tom Schlichter

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