There was a considerable chop in the Great South Bay as Matt Welling drove his workboat to the two-acre plot of floating black rectangles that make up the oyster farm owned by him and Max Haspel. The work had to be done early because, as Welling predicted, a record 13 plus inches of rain would dump on Islip later that day.
The overcast sky felt eerie and the boat hit hard after each chop with a jarring slap.
“If it’s low tide you have to be on your line because the bay gets pretty shallow around here,” Welling says. If there were anyone to travel with on a boat in this weather it would be Welling. He is a professional yachtsman and was part of the 2007 Swiss team that won the America’s Cup. Shortly after arriving at the plot off Sexton Island, Haspel pulls up in his own boat, boards the work vessel and the two men begin to work their floating farm.
According to suffolkcountyny.gov, over the past 25 years 93 percent of the shellfish has died off in the Great South Bay due to brown tides and algal blooms, also killing 6,000 jobs. This also affects the bays on the East End.
To try and restore bay health the town of Islip created an initiative to lease by lottery 13 parcels of bay area between two and five acres each for oyster farming. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of seawater a day by eating algae and removing dirt and nitrogen, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website.
Haspel and Welling entered the lottery and were awarded the 13th plot, hence the name, Lucky 13 Oysters. “It’s only been a year and we are just figuring it out as we go along,” Welling says.
Welling is a sailor and Haspel runs a boutique finance firm. Both men grew up on Long Island as “bay rats,” but neither has farmed shellfish before. They asked oyster farmers in Maine who had been at it for decades what the best systems were for quality oysters and were surprised at their friendly and helpful responses.
After doing their research, they decided to go with the OysterGro system. Mesh bags filled with oysters are suspended from the floating black boxes. If bad weather comes, the plugs on the box can be pulled and the bags sink to the bottom out of harm’s way.
This method is more expensive than most, but Haspel says it comes with two benefits. First, the cages can be flipped over and the oysters are periodically left in the sun. The sunlight and wind kills biofouling — barnacles, worms and other harmful microorganisms — keeping the oysters healthy. The second benefit occurs when the cages are flipped. The oysters tumble and rub against each other chipping the newer and frailer edges of the shell. The shell then grows thicker and with a deeper cup creating a plumper oyster with a very hard shell.
Within the next year, the men plan to take their farming techniques east. Haspel is the son of Southold’s rock star, biodynamic farmer KK Haspel. He grew up understanding the importance of sustainable farming and although he and Welling are only in their second year, they have also won a Suffolk County lease for a 10-acre site off Jessup’s Neck in Peconic Bay.
Back on the workboat, Welling and Haspel are pulling up bags and dumping oysters from the size of a pinky nail to market size and ready to shuck onto a sorting table.
Welling shucks an oyster and slurps it down while Haspel explains what made Blue Points world famous. “They have a very minerally taste because of the proximity to the ocean.”
Welling pops another then nods his head in agreement.
“They’re salty and sweet, have a great briny taste and the meat is sweet and plump,” he adds. “They taste like the water they come out of. These oysters taste different than the ones from Peconic Bay.”
A few local restaurants have featured Lucky 13 so far and consistent distribution should be ready by the spring. For samples and more information, Welling and Haspel can be reached at [email protected]