How a Briny Bivalve Spawned an Industry on Long Island

Photo by Doug Young

Native Americans had been harvesting oysters long before the white man set foot on our shores. These delicate and tasty bivalves soon became prized food for the early settlers. In 1784, a town meeting had taken place in Oyster Bay after three men, Samuel Youngs, James Farley and Amaziah Wheeler, from a neighboring town, attempted to remove oysters from Oyster Bay Harbor. It was declared that “outsiders” should not be permitted to take or carry away any of the oysters from off the oyster beds lying in the town on penalty of five pounds.” Soon thereafter, oysters were in demand, and the oyster industry on Long Island began to flourish.

By the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Long Island Sound, along with the Great South Bay, was known for its oyster trade. Oysters were in abundance from the North Fork to New York City. In fact, oysters became the hot commodity in Manhattan and were the go-to food before pizza, bagels, hot dogs and pretzels. Even street vendors sold oysters, which are rich in protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A, B and C. Oysters were plentiful in New York Harbor, and were much larger than the oysters of today. People came from all around the world to taste oysters from the “oyster capital.” However, as time went on, pollution, sewage and over-harvesting destroyed New York’s oyster industry. By 1927, the last of New York’s oyster beds were closed.

Oysters attach themselves to pilings, rocks and older oyster shells, and they live at or below the tide level. They can help keep waters clean by controlling phytoplankton abundance through their filter-feeding capacity. Oysters, as well as clams, get their food by filtering microalgae and microscopic organisms from the water in which they live. Thankfully, oysters continued to thrive for a number of years in the waters on and around Long Island.

The Great South Bay was known not only for its oysters but for other types of shellfish, such as cherrystone, littleneck and chowder clams, as well. There was such a demand for oysters, that seed beds were planted. By the mid-1890s, the Great South Bay could not keep up with the demand for seed oysters, so planters had to turn to the Sound and harvest seed oysters in waters off Connecticut and Northport and Huntington Harbors.

bluepoint oysters

The Great South Bay became famous for its Blue Point oysters. It was the perfect environment to raise these oysters because of the bay’s strong current, beneficial minerals, algae and phytoplankton. By the time World War I rolled around, pollution in the seed beds in the Great South Bay took hold, and there was a decline in the oyster population. By the 1930s, two natural events further damaged the oyster industry in the Great South Bay. The first event was a coastal storm in 1931 that opened Moriches Inlet into Moriches Bay causing an increase in salinity of the water. This enabled a small snail called an “oyster drill,” to make its way in and prey upon the oyster seeds. As if this didn’t cause enough damage, the Great Hurricane of 1938 swept through and destroyed many of the remaining oyster beds.

By the 1940s and 1950s, a small species of algae, not nutritious to the oysters and clams, caused “small fall blooms” in the Great South Bay. Many blamed this on the duck farming industry in Moriches Bay, where large quantities of non-beneficial nutrients made their way to the water. The closing of Moriches Inlet brought these nutrients into the bay.

Finally, by the 1980s and 1990s, the oyster industry on Long Island began to see a resurgence. This was mainly due to new and successful oyster culture practices. The commercial oyster industry peaked again in 1992 but then went on a slow decline because the oysters were attacked by a parasitic disease known as “MSX.” It wasn’t until 2006 that oyster harvests began to recover.

Today, Blue Island Oyster Company is the largest producer of oysters in the Great South Bay. It is recognized for cultivating the Blue Point oyster, along with a variety of other succulent oysters, and is recognized as the number one oyster and clam distributor in New York. Their oysters can be found in restaurants from New York City to San Francisco.

Areas along Long Island’s North Fork, including Peconic Bay, Noyac Bay and Gardiner’s Bay are also becoming known for their oyster production. Smaller, private operations are producing amazingly delicious oysters from the East End, where restaurant patrons are more than happy to support the local industry.

Hopefully, oyster production off the waters of Long Island Sound and the Great South Bay will continue to grow and prosper, making New York the capital of the oyster industry once more.

This story was originally published in December 2013.