Peconic Bay oysterman Jacob Feibusch hopes to triple his initial yield of 250,000 oysters, a "historical product of New York." Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Just outside Wickham Creek in Cutchogue, the Peconic Bay opens to a vast waterscape of outer beaches, distant bluffs and, just west of Robins Island, the oyster farms.

Jacob Feibusch, a 25-year-old Army reservist from Kings Park, is in his element as he maneuvers his 20-foot Sea Ox alongside the rows of floating black oyster cages, gaffs a rope line and retracts a clattering plastic cage of oysters. "This is my heart and soul,” he says of the 10-acre oyster farm he started in 2023.

Three years ago, Feibusch dove for oysters on Smithtown Bay, rowing a 10-foot boat to wild oyster beds to collect the shellfish. As he still does today, he delivered the oysters in his truck to local restaurants and seafood markets across Long Island. Last year, he took his Davy Jones Shellfish Co. a big step forward by investing in cages, buoys, a new outboard engine, lines and even a small work barge needed to tend his farm year-round. He paid more than $10,000 for the initial seed oysters.

Today, he’s got more than 250,000 oysters in the water, some just below the surface, others much deeper for "finishing" in the Peconic — all with flavors distinct from others in the world.

“These oysters from Long Island, the Peconic, are the best in the world,” said Feibusch, who also works part time as a harbormaster for Brookhaven Town.

Feibusch represents one of the latest entries in a field of entrepreneurs who invest long hours and life savings into a labor of love that is facing constant natural and market challenges, including stiff competition from larger oyster companies in Connecticut and the Chesapeake Bay, and a New York City market that doesn’t always give the locals their due, some farmers say.

“The challenges are many,” said Chuck Westfall, owner of Thatch Island Oyster Farm in the Great South Bay and president of the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, an industry group of more than 20 oyster farmers.

“We compete against growers in Connecticut that have 1,000-acre farms, and in Virginia even larger,” he said, noting Suffolk County’s aquaculture lease program limits farms on the Peconic to 10 acres or less. Out-of-state rivals “can come into our market at a very low price point.”

Long Island farms like Westfall’s Thatch Island sell oysters at wholesale from 55 to 65 cents each, and from 75 to 85 cents to restaurants. Rivals from Virginia can go as low as 45 cents, he said. “It makes a difference,” particularly to restaurants looking to keep costs low.

Chuck Westfall, owner of Thatch Island Oyster Farm, left, with...

Chuck Westfall, owner of Thatch Island Oyster Farm, left, with employee and oysterman Cesar Rengifo, on a dock in the Great South Bay in December 2022. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Fishy 'Blue Point' labels

Worse, Westfall said, importers market oysters here using the Blue Point name, which has long been associated with Long Island oysters, disregarding a New York law that requires Blue Points be harvested in the Great South Bay. “They pirate the name, which is aggravating. It’s not a spectacular oyster,” Westfall said.   

Like the Long Island wine region before it, the Long Island oyster industry is at a crossroads. After surviving challenges such as the COVID-19 lockdown and building an industry essentially from scratch, Long Island's oyster farmers have developed distribution networks but remain somewhat vulnerable to the seasonal nature of local markets, and are challenged by cheaper imports from breaking open big markets such as New York City and beyond. All the while, they say, their filter-feed products have contributed significantly to the clean-up of local waterways.  

Manhattan’s Grand Central Oyster Bar, which features up to 30 varieties of oysters, "has three Long Island oysters on the menu on a good day,” said Eric Koepele, partner in North Fork Big Oyster, who entered the market with a leased farm in Hog Neck Bay just east of Nassau Point in 2021.

For instance, the restaurant’s menu earlier this month included “Fried Copps Island Bluepoint Oysters,” which it notes are “sourced from Copps Island, Conn., or the Chesapeake Bay and shipped directly to us to bread and fry.”

“We’re not even close to taking our fair share of Manhattan,” Koepele said. A Long Island market of around 8 million oysters a year has lots of room for growth. “We should be doing 80 million oysters a year, but to build up the distribution and marketing to make that happen you’re practically starting from scratch at this point.”

North Fork Big Oyster sold around 100,000 oysters last year, he added. The family-run operation, which has 10 acres of oyster farm and is signing a lease for another 10 acres this month, has a goal of 2 million oysters a year, said Koepele, who is a part-time media consultant.

Koepele and other oyster farmers don’t blame the restaurants. “We need to create some infrastructure to market ourselves,” he said.

Stronger marketing eyed

Koepele said he's exploring county, state and other government grants to fund public relations and marketing for New York oyster growers. Part of it will involve an e-commerce-friendly website that will offer Long Island oysters from local suppliers, among other things.

“We’re in that beginning stage with all these disparate views over how to get the word out that we are our own industry,” said Phil Mastrangelo, partner of Oysterponds Shellfish Co., a venture begun in 2001 when Reg Tuthill and John Holzapfel began seeding oysters in Oysterponds Creek in Orient. Today it’s one of the region’s largest and best known, with more than 50 acres of oyster farms. Estimates place its annual production at upward of 2 million oysters.

We’re in that beginning stage with all these disparate views over how to get the word out that we are our own industry.

Phil Mastrangelo, partner of Oysterponds Shellfish Co.

In a statement, Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine called oyster growers “a legacy industry for our region,” and said his administration would “do everything possible to assist them in growing their businesses and streamlining county processes and preserve this vital industry that creates local jobs and also cleans our bays and waterways.”

Challenges farmers face include finding places to keep their oyster farming gear, including large numbers of cages, once they're removed from the water, and occasional objections to gear on the water, including from yacht clubs, which have objected to oyster farms in court.

“Upland storage is a huge challenge,” said Mastrangelo, who ships oysters as far away as Los Angeles and Florida. “Everyone needs a place to land gear.” Oystermen are working with Southold and other towns to come to a solution.

Cost of gear also has skyrocketed. An oyster cage that can hold up to 2,000 juvenile oysters went from $100 pre-pandemic to $200 now. “That’s significant when you’re looking to expand your operation,” said Mastrangelo. Ten acres of oyster grounds can take up to 450 cages. Some docks used by oyster farmers to tie up boats that go to oyster grounds year-round have raised prices upward of 30%, he added.

One million seed oysters to start a farm can cost as much as $35,000, and they can have a mortality rate of 20% to 50%, depending on conditions and experience. “A cultured oyster, you have to work to maintain that oyster,” Mastrangelo said. “It needs to be touched every six to eight weeks” to limit predation and other health impacts.


Cost of 1 million seed oysters; they have a mortality rate of 20% to 50%.

Oysters ready to ship to market need to be kept at a continually cool temperature, at the very least with ice, but on a larger scale with refrigerator trucks and storage. “All that costs a ton of money,” Mastrangelo said.

Koeplele and Mastrangelo said imports from other states and Canada have seen a sharp increase post-pandemic. From 2015, when only eight shellfish import licenses were issued in New York State, the number has increased to 33 in 2023. Oyster imports to the U.S. overall have tripled in the past few years, from $24 million in 2020 to $78.8 million in 2022, according to research firm Tridge.

Growth amid difficulties

But New York has seen increases, too. Landings and the value of New York oysters have soared over the past 15 years as local growers have cultivated a market for farmed oysters, not unlike that for Long Island wines, said Westfall. In 2010, New York oyster farms harvested 25,574 bushels valued at just over $2 million. By 2022 that jumped to 41,808 bushels valued at $4.6 million. There are between 250 and 300 oysters in a bushel.

But the numbers don’t always show the difficulty through which local oyster harvesters persevered. In 2020, at the heart of the pandemic, the harvest dropped to 32,456 bushels valued at $2.9 million, compared with 45,853 bushels in 2019 valued at over $3.6 million.

$4.6 million

Value of New York oyster farm harvests in 2022, up from just over $2 million in 2010.

“During COVID we found out that 90 percent of our sales are direct to restaurants, so when the restaurants closed down business slowed down quite significantly,” Feibusch said. “But now that everything is back up to functionality, life is normal. We’re finding new avenues to push our oysters, trying to get into new markets and improve our current ones.”

Plates of oysters stacked for customers during the Oyster Festival...

Plates of oysters stacked for customers during the Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay. The annual event buys its oysters elsewhere. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Westfall and other local oyster growers speak with frustration about local restaurants and festivals, including the Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay, that rely on imports rather than locally produced oysters.

“The problem is price point,” said Westfall. “We compete with inferior oysters. In restaurants price point is everything.”

Westfall said the growers' association  was in contact with the Rotary Club of Oyster Bay, which hosts the festival, to get Long Island oysters on the menu, but “they said, Nope. It’s about price.”

Kerry Gillick-Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the Oyster Bay festival, said that for years, the festival relied on donations of 50,000 oysters from Frank M. Flower & Sons. But the donations have ceased and for the past two years the Rotary has had to purchase on its own.

“Then it comes down to price,” Gillick-Goldberg said, in addition to the fact that no single grower could supply the full 50,000 oysters needed. “If you save 30% by going to Connecticut, that’s what you do because the money goes to charity.” She said festival buyers even reached out to Long Island growers, but “they weren’t able to match the price or the quantity.”

Oysterman Jacob Feibusch, owner of Davy Jones Shellfish, in Peconic...

Oysterman Jacob Feibusch, owner of Davy Jones Shellfish, in Peconic Bay off of Cutchogue on Feb. 7. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Feibusch and others said that with growth and increased marketing, there’s plenty of room for the local industry to advance to the next level.

“I think the infrastructure and logistics is our biggest hurdle right now,” he said, noting the region does not have an oyster processing facility. “This is an industry that’s kind of swelling at once through collaboration and individual growers here on the Island. So now we’re looking to push our oysters farther and to new places and get them out of the New York City metropolitan area and make them a staple on national menus.”

“They are just as good and critically acclaimed as the oysters that currently do [appear on restaurant menus] and we’d like a seat at the table as well,” Feibusch said.

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