Diving for the Catch: The Life of a Long Island Oyster Diver

Michael Young is one of the few oyster divers left on Long Island.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in the harbor of Port Jefferson, Michael ‘Mike’ Young steps into a dry suit, wiggling his legs into each side. The sun shines down with few clouds in the sky, but the whipping wind takes away any chance of warmth on the 50-degree day. After adjusting some knobs and turns on the oxygen tank, Mike puts on gloves, flippers and a dive hood. The only skin showing is his eyes, nose and mouth, which will soon be covered by goggles and a breathing regulator. He sits on the edge of the boat with ease, even though the waves rock the vessel back and forth. The deck is covered in shell fishing gear—slatted buckets, a cooler, nets, tarps and ropes. Leaning backwards, Mike hits the water—back first—and sinks in. Five minutes later, he comes up with what he’s found on the ocean floor—three-inch snails, coral scraps, a clam—but no oysters.

“It’s too sandy down there,” he says.

Mike, 39, calls himself a bayman, an independent shell fisherman, but he is one of the few oyster divers on Long Island. When the sky is clear, and the wind is down, he and his partner Keith Fields, along with a deckhand, start their day at 4:30 in the morning, driving out to many of the bays to make their living from the seas, with all her temperaments. 

“We both have the drive to get up and go to work every day,” says Fields, his help on the boat and lifelong friend. “On the days that I’m feeling lazy, he pushes me. When he feels lazy, I’m pushing him.”

Mike will gear up and submerge himself for four to six hours at a time, searching for and collecting oysters by hand. His deckhand and partner will cull and bag his findings and transport them to a wholesaler. From there, they go to specialty stores, grocers and restaurants all over the country, eventually making it into the belly of a consumer. 

Mike’s work is physically draining, weather dependent and financially unpredictable.

Oysters have always had a home on Long Island, with local fisherman harvesting them as early as the mid 17th century. Although farming grew in popularity in the early 1800s, many fishermen, including Mike, have held onto the traditional way of catching them in the wild.

Mike’s work is physically draining, weather dependent and financially unpredictable—yet he still does the work year-round, and his passion shines through the challenges.

“It’s awesome under there,” he says, with a smile. “You gotta love it.”

And Mike’s appetite for the ocean has underscored his tough journey to get there. After 8th grade, the Sayville, N.Y. native dropped out of school.

“I was bad, I was really bad,” he says. “I was mad at the world. I didn’t have a good upbringing, family life.”

At the age of 15, he started working carpentry full-time and got his first fishing license at the same time. Eventually, he went to work with his father washing airplanes, and then, at 16, he started working on fishing boats. 

Over the next decade, Mike went to jail three times due to assault charges.

When he was 24, he met his future wife, who, Mike says, changed his path. 

“Don’t know where I would be without her. She’s awesome—she was my first tattoo,” he says, showing off his left ring finger where his wife’s name, Mandy, is tattooed. They now have three children together ages 13, 12 and nine months.

“I know I straightened him out,” Mandy, a stay at home mom, says. “He’s very kind, and thoughtful, he would do anything for anybody.” 

After he got married, Mike wanted to have a stable income for his family. 

“I was scared to venture out on my own. So, I fished part time and I worked in a metal shop, so I could make metal parts,” he says.

At first, Mike was just sail dredging, but then four years ago he tried oyster diving and added that to his fishing routine.

But then, almost a decade later, he got the guts to go out on his own. He combined his passion for fishing and his dedication to his family and decided to take a risk—become his own boss. 

“This is kind of a cheaper way to make good money to feed my family and work for myself,” he says. “I don’t make money like this working for somebody else. That was really my main drive, and I get to fish.”

At first, he was just sail dredging, but then four years ago he tried oyster diving and added that to his fishing routine.

But the work is tough, both financially and physically. 

“It is hit or miss. When I go out in the spring, I catch a lot less and I work a lot harder,” he says. “By summer time . . . you start to catch more and work less.”

His best days can get him $2,600, but on his worst days, he comes home with $300 (it costs him $350 just to leave the harbor, all expenses included).

 “The more days you work, the more money you make,” says Fields. “Sometimes that’s not always the case. Sometimes you put in a 15-hour day for nothing—to lose money.”

Last year, Mike had a close call. When coming up from a dive, he surfaced too quickly and suffered an air embolism.

“I was in the hyperbaric chamber,” he says. “Doc told me I had to take a day off. Two days later, I was out on the boat again. And I’m still out there doing it.”

The weather can be a big factor in his job and pushes him to other shellfish outside oysters.

“All summer, I’ll dive for oysters, but the windy days I’ll sail dredge,” he says. “When scallop season starts, and the water gets cold, I’ll scallop. If I have to clam one day, I’ll go out and clam.”

But no matter what the fish, Mike believes his passion will take him to his final days. When asked how long he will continue fishing, he replies, “‘Till forever. I’ll fight it out. I’ll die out there.”