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Saving Long Island Oysters

Without shellfish culturing facilities growing and planting seed oysters and clams, Long Island would be in short supply of its favorite bivalves.

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Odds are, if you’ve picked up a large oyster shell on a Long Island beach recently, you were holding a century-old underwater relic. In the late 1800's there were 25 oyster-packing houses along the Great South Bay.  By the 1950's oyster harvesting was virtually suspended due to the combination of several factors, not the least of which was over-harvesting, which was exacerbated by changes to barrier inlets, habitat destruction, predation, water quality degradation and pollution as well as the introduction of oyster diseases.  Long Island's most valuable bivalve was functionally extinct by the mid-1900's.  

Fast forward half a century.  May still begins oyster season, and Long Islanders are still adding extra notches to their belts in order to celebrate oysters the best way they know how, baked at 400 degrees and doused with a delicious buttery sauce. It’s remarkable to think that at the rate Long Island oysters are consumed and harvested, and their individual price tag ranging from $2-3 a piece, that these bivalves are still filling their ecological niche in our coastal waters. But oysters have not experienced a natural comeback.  Actually, various efforts across Long Island have prevented the highly valued species from going extinct.
Leading off the oyster-revival of the mid-1990’s, the Town of Islip established its Shellfish Culture Facility located in East Islip, in 1988, as the first large-scale municipally operated facility of its kind with the aim restoring hardshell clam and oyster populations and rebuilding stocks to support both commercial and recreational harvesting. While the facility has been producing Notata clams, known by baymen as “reds,” since its inception, oyster culturing is a relatively new endeavor. The Shellfish Culture Facility is producing seed oysters to plant in the bay as well as sell to boutique growers, who raise the young seed oysters to sell to commercial fish markets and seafood restaurants. 
The Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton began a small shellfish hatchery in 2005, and by 2008 was overseeing more than 200,000 ripe and meaty oysters, and a handful of private, commercial hatcheries are also playing a major role in keeping step with oyster demands.  As it turns out, oyster farming actually produces plumper, studier and healthier oysters more resistant to disease. Micro-farming of oysters also produces uniquely flavorful oysters that carry with them the distinct salinity of the waters in which they were matured.  And Long Island seafood restaurants and fish markets are in high demand for these little critters.
Oysters and other bivalves may taste excellent, but they also serve an important duty in the waters surrounding Long Island. Oysters are filter feeders, in fact a single, fully-matured oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water daily. Excess plankton, sediment, nutrients and algae are stripped from the water as oysters continuously channel water through their gills and direct particulates to their mouths. While oysters can have a major impact on clarifying water, pollution is still a limiting factor for shellfish populations.
Oysters are also described as a keystone species because they play a critical role in providing the structure for an ecological community. The surface area of their shells and the spaces between the individual creatures serves as a perfect habitat for small marine species. Sea anemones, barnacles and hooked mussels find habitation and protection from larger fish species such as striped bass and blackfish which are common in the various inlets and coastal areas of the bays and Sound.
Clamming and oyster harvesting in the bay and the Sound are centuries old traditions for Long Islanders. But the oysters, too, have an ecological tradition of their own, filtering our water and attracting the second tier of an aquatic ecosystem's biodiversity, and the work of the shellfish hatcheries ensures that this tradition can continue into the future. 
Share your thoughts about oyster hatcheries on Long Island at our Long Island Living discussion forum, or post your comment below.