Reviving the Fertile Oyster Fields Off Robins Island

Walker Lourie, one of the founders of West Robins Oyster Company, pulls in oysters which thrive in the Peconic Bay. Lori Hawkins photos

Reliance on the natural elements to yield a successful harvest is not exclusive to traditional agriculture as it is known on land. Beneath the surface of the East End’s saltwater lays another vast land with its farmers working through the weather and seasons year-round to cultivate a crop that has come to be one of the most prominent. Walker Lourie and Will Peckham are the founders of West Robins Oyster Co. located just west of Robins Island in the Great Peconic Bay. Owning a portion of the bay bottom as a private property right in existence since 1884, the pair rely on a healthy ecosystem to enable a sustainable crop that defines the flavor of their home and honors the water’s heritage.

Though the company only opened in 2016, the underwater grounds of West Robins were once part of a large oyster-growing operation in the 19thand early 20thcenturies. The antiquated property right itself was first granted by New York State and Suffolk County in an effort to provide a space for oyster farmers displaced by pollution and overfishing. Today, food system sustainability is what Peckham says is the company’s raison d’etre. From a childhood on the Damariscotta River, known for both its farmed and wild oyster populations, to a degree in economics from Middlebury College and a conservation finance internship in Montana, his life as an oyster farmer was fated. Peckham also spent some time on Wall Street, and is at once a farmer and businessman.

“By investing our time and resources in operating and expanding our oyster farm, we’re making a calculated long-term bet that our consumers will continue to expand their appetite and willingness to support our mission,” Peckham says. “We often say that cultivating shellfish is the most sustainable form of protein production mankind has ever adopted. Environmentally, there are tremendous benefits arising both from what we do and what we don’t do.”

Oysters cultivated by West Robins feed the most heavily from around April through November, though husbandry practices happen year-round. A season will begin with more than one million seed oysters on the farm that ranges from six to 25 feet deep as massive tidal exchanges narrowly weave between Robins Island and the North and South forks. With the tide comes naturally occurring phytoplankton, food that has a profound impact on the growth rate of the filter-feeding bivalves. Depth and current play a supporting role as well, and the farmers make concessions to capture the best qualities of their underwater property.

“A deeper depth will generally confer lower water temperatures and diminished food availability, leading to a slower-growing, denser oyster,” Peckham says. “Wind and wave energy deliver sustained motion to the oyster cages which can jostle the animals, creating micro-fissures in the shells and promoting a deep-cupped oyster with a ‘polished’ appearance that you might not get in other culture methods or areas of a growing site.”

As “ecosystem engineers,” oysters help increase biodiversity and marine ecosystem health in the vicinity of the farm. Underwater habitats have been the subject of much turmoil over the years though as concerns from worsening water quality have led to events like shellfish bed and beach closures across Long Island. A report released this September by Stony Brook University professor Dr. Christopher Gobler revealed that every major bay and estuary across the island was afflicted by toxic algae blooms, hypoxia (oxygen-starved waters), or both during this past summer. Elevated nitrogen levels are a top culprit and, along with warming waters, can lead to marine species die-offs. Lourie, who did his thesis at Hamilton College on the impact of global warming on Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, says the industry will be impacted on a variety of fronts in the coming decades.

Will Peckham with his recently-harvested oysters from the Peconic Bay.

“Rising ocean temperatures will expand oyster predators’ ranges to the north, increased rainfall on land will alter the makeup of coastal waters, storms will get bigger, and ocean waters will acidify,” Lourie explains, sharing the latter will likely have the biggest impact on oysters. “As our oceans become increasingly acidic due to rising dissolved carbon dioxide levels, oysters will find it more and more difficult to grow new shell. For an adult oyster this would just mean slower growth, but for a juvenile oyster the risks are substantially greater.”

The first few days are critical for microscopic oyster larvae as they must gather enough shell to have self-sustaining feeding systems. If they fail, they will not survive. Coastal storms are another major concern for oyster farmers as they increase in frequency and intensity. Forced to respond to these elements, Lourie explains farmers will either have to strengthen their growing systems or change their methods entirely.

“If a farm is getting battered with unusually powerful storms, measures must be taken,” Lourie says. “Think installing more robust anchors or switching from rope to steel cable to mitigate crop losses. Here at West Robins, Will and I are constantly thinking about what steps we can take to make our growing systems as reliable as possible.”

“A Geography of Oysters” author Rowan Jacobsen is well-known in the oyster industry. Describing the flavor profiles of various North American populations, he says the oysters harvested from Peconic Bay are known for very salty, clean flavors due to a lack of freshwater influence. Though concerns of water quality impact the health of an oyster, he finds it unlikely there is a direct correlation to flavor.

“Water quality probably doesn’t directly impact flavor, but oysters draw their flavor from the phytoplankton they eat, and the amounts and species of phytoplankton is certainly influenced by water quality,” Jacobsen says. “Ironically, sometimes the richest flavored oysters come from water that is unnaturally thick with phytoplankton because of over-nutrification.”

Conscious of the ecosystems surrounding them, West Robins Oyster Co. has found success among discerning chefs and oyster-loving consumers. Over the next few months, Lourie and Peckham will spend their time culling and harvesting oysters for distribution, while also planning new initiatives for the upcoming growing season. Their Classique Robins oysters plucked from the bay embody the aquaculture heritage of the historic underwater lands. The result is a clean brine on the nose mixed with a complex Peconic Bay mineral and vegetal finish that defines the flavor of West Robins’s harvest.