The Salty Story of Oysters

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The oyster: that slippery mollusk and object of foodie obsession. It is interesting to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, what ancient human species stumbled upon the quivering, still living slip of oyster meat and designated it fit for consumption. In May, both the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center (SoFo) and the Southampton Historical Museum will host interactive lectures on the legendary bivalve, respectively titled “History of the Oyster in New York” and “All About Oysters.”

Before pizza or bagels, oysters were New York City’s most renowned food find. The lower Hudson estuary was once home to over 350 square miles of oyster beds. East River and Staten Island specimens were so prized that they were often exported to London and Paris. “Back in the day, when the oyster industry was booming,” said Kim W. Tetrault, a marine biology instructor at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County and speaker at SoFo’s lecture, “oysters were the poor person’s food choice.” Compelling demand, paired with an increase in river pollution, caused a precipitous decline in the oyster harvest. The industry almost instantaneously fell from grace.

Around this same time—the early 1900s—a few Greenport entrepreneurs discovered that they could bring seed in from oyster seedbeds from areas like Connecticut. “They would load the barges with mountains of shells and dump them off into Greenport,” Ms. Tetrault said. “It was aquaculture, even back then.” Oysters could be transplanted from one location to another and, in so doing, a capable turn-of-the-century aquaculturist could create something out of nothing.

As a result, shucking houses began to proliferate in Greenport and workers arrived to a bustling town with a renewed marine life. Eventually, though, these seedbeds, like their New York City cousins, gave out under the crushing weight of demand. Seeded oyster beds gave way to hatcheries, which again beefed up the industry, until 1980, when a brown tide closed down production indefinitely.

Gene Austin, whose father was deeply involved in Greenport’s oyster business and imparted knowledge to his son, is an expert in the field.  Austin’s father kept fastidious records of his time on the water, and these records, along with other accumulated research, will form the backbone of his Southampton Historical Museum lecture. “My father was based out of East Marion. They called him Captain Butter. That was a nickname that he got on his first day of kindergarten,” Austin said. “I got interested in oysters because I was given his original chart … that was put out by the Blue Point Oyster Company in 1946.”

Austin’s father’s given name was Elbert Austin. In 1944, while working at a shipyard in Greenport, Elbert Austin decided to transfer over to the Seal Ship Company. While there, he became captain of a small boat called “Automatic,” a job he worked until the mid-1950s. Greenport fishermen seeding across the Sound would see their oysters spawn around the 4thof July. A few months later, a harvest would appear. But a bad storm from the northeast buried the oyster beds in 1953. “That was the final blow,” Gene Austin said.

“That’s when he [Elbert Austin] got away from it.” A combination of overharvesting, bad storms, and starfish — which kill oysters by essentially suffocating their opening mechanisms with their stomachs — signaled an end to the boom.

Even the most impassioned oyster lover may not know that the eastern seaboard of the United States is the only place where the eastern oyster grows. From Newfoundland to the Texas panhandle, there is one species and one species alone, the Atlantic Oyster, or, more specifically, the Crassostrea Virginica. The West Coast has only one native oyster, the rarely seen Olympia. Other species, like the Pacific or Crassostrea Gigas, which include the common Fanny Bay and Penn Cove Select varieties, are actually native to Japan. On the East Coast, only indigenous oysters are permitted, recalling the rigorous agricultural designations of France’s wine Appellation law.

In fact, the wine and oyster worlds have numerous parallels, a relationship that Tetrault refers to as “merroir,” a play on the French wine term terroir,a definition of the relationship between wine and place. “An oyster that you eat is significantly a function of the water that it is grown in.” As Austin put it, “You could have oysters on one side of Shelter Island and the other side would taste totally different.”

These days, Greenport oysters are farmed. A naturally grown oyster, per state regulation, must be 3 inches across before it is harvested; oysters grow at a rate of one inch per year. Farmed oysters, on the other hand, need not adhere to these regulations. There is profit, then, in selling smaller farmed oysters, which can be turned around for the same profit in less time.

Boutique dining notwithstanding, oysters offer up a very different kind of prize. A single oyster can filter upwards of 250 liters of water in a day. “When you have enough of these oysters, they can have an effect on an ecosystem, when it comes to controlling algae blooms,” Christopher J. Gobler, Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMA) said. In the spring of 2017, a brown tide bloom on Long Island’s south shore drew Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attention. “The Governor called me and expressed frustration, because he had just spent 2.5 billion dollars on clean water infrastructure, but he recognized that there needed to be something done in the interim. He asked what could be done once a bloom is already occurring to begin to control it.”

Gobler suggested an extension of a project he had spearheaded, the Shinnecock Bay Restoration, in which millions of clams and oysters were planted with the idea of assisting in the water filtration process. Governor Cuomo agreed to $10.4 million worth of funding for the project, which includes the first permitted oyster reef on Long Island. The result has been a marked decline in brown tide, as well as the added bonus of a sustainable oyster population. “The goal is to plant clams and oysters in a way so that they create a reproducing population,” Gobler said.

In the meantime, Long Island continues to embrace its oyster-loving past. The South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center will host “History of the Oyster in New York” on May 5 at 5 p.m., $15 for adults and $10 for children. “All About Oysters” will take place at the Southampton Historical Museum on May 10 at 11 a.m. Participants can register through the museum.

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