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The Island is their oyster: Locals in aquaculture do more than just savor the shellfish

KATERINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | An artifact from when Shelter Island was a key player in the industry of the east coast.
KATERINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | An artifact from when Shelter Island was a key player in the industry of the east coast.

No one is indifferent to oysters.

For some, like author and master chef James Beard, the meat of the oyster is “one of the supreme delights that nature has bestowed.”

French author Michel de Montaigne compared them to violets and his countryman, poet Leon-Paul Fargue, rhapsodized that eating an oyster is “like kissing the sea on the lips.”

And then there are those who can’t prevent a shudder of revulsion when spying a pale mass of slimy stuff sitting in a shell. Slurp or chew that? Please.

Count Islanders Peter and Zibby Munson among the lovers. Last week, on the porch of their home above Menantic Creek, Mr. Munson noted that he had to go through a period of conversion to the oyster cult.

“My father never had an oyster in his life,” he said, describing his father’s idea of eating one as beyond nauseating. But, like the Frenchmen mentioned above, Mr. Munson was hooked by osmosis.

“When I lived in France,” he said, describing a job for an American firm in Paris and Dijon, “it was a hard to avoid them. They’re ubiquitous.”

He and Ms. Munson are so enamored of oysters that they raise their own, as part of the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training (SPAT) program of Cornell Cooperative Extension, which teaches novices the art of oyster “gardening.”

The program, Ms. Munson said, helps participants with equipment, weekly lectures and support and provides them with “spat,” or the minuscule oyster seeds that after about a year and half of living in saltwater, become large enough to harvest. A Dixie cup half-filled with water can contain thousands of the tiny oyster seeds.

Tethered to the Munson’s dock on the creek were seven linked “cages,” or shallow mesh boxes made from treated cloth. As a lone kayaker glided past, and a cormorant danced across the water before settling with a splash, Ms. Munson lay on the dock and flipped over each cage. This is done least once a week, she said, “to keep the muck” from collecting.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Zibby Munson flipping over the oyster cages tethered to her dock on Menantic Creek.
Zibby Munson flipping over the oyster cages tethered to her dock on Menantic Creek.

There’s a joke she shares with her husband of being overly “diligent” when they started growing oysters, scrubbing each crusty, messy bivalve with a toothbrush. Flipping the cages seems to work just as well, she said with a smile. And you don’t eat the shells.

The Munson’s can harvest up to 400 or 500 oysters a year. Signing on to the SPAT program means promising that the operation will be non-commercial, so the Munson’s eat what they raise, give to friends, or leave the oysters to continue to grow.

Their neighbors next door are happy beneficiaries. Or at least one of them is. “He’s voracious,” Mr. Munson said. “But she,” Ms. Munson added, but then paused, smiling, and just shook her head.

Bringing them back

Oysters were once a thriving food source for all of Long Island and New York City.

Some Islanders can remember that until the 1950s, the Shelter Island Oyster Company maintained a flourishing commercial enterprise in Greenport and Southold.

The factory was a major player in the region’s oyster industry. But here, it had to weather complaints from some neighbors in the area about loud noise and dreadful odors.

Islander Bill Plock, whose grandfather John Plock Sr. founded the company, told the Reporter he remembers working in the factory, putting together corrugated boxes for shipping, sweeping the floors, organizing inventory, shucking the bi-valves and loading boxes with canned oysters to be shipped weekly to Boston and other markets.

As for the noise and the odors, Mr. Plock said that was no turn-off for him, but represented the hard work and accomplishments of the family business.

But that was then. By the 1930s, the oyster industry was headed for collapse, according to author and journalist, Kerriann Flanagan Brosk. In the early part of that decade, a snail known as “an oyster drill” appeared, Ms. Brosk has written, and fed on oyster seeds, destroying future stocks. In addition, the Great Hurricane of 1938 destroyed many oyster beds, and by midcentury, the appearance of algae blooms, so common these days, made their deadly appearance.

There was a steady decline in raising oysters over the years due to the increasing amount of pollutants in the water.

Kim Tetrault, community aquaculture specialist with Cornell, said the SPAT program is now in its 17th year and currently has about 230 members covering all the East End towns and other communities up-Island. There are 36 Islanders listed as members, Mr. Tetrault said, with about 20 fully active in the program.

The requirements to grow oysters non-commercially with the SPAT program are a permit from the New York State Department of Conservation, which costs about $10; be in certified waters; and have a point of attachment to a dock or a bulkhead.

Not only do participants harvest and eat oysters for free, they improve the health of the Peconic Estuary, Mr. Tetrault said.

“Shellfish are known as ‘filter-feeders.’ They clean the water,” he said. “They also reproduce, so they can replenish stocks.

Another benefit SPAT provides is you have community involvement and community stewardship. The educational component is very important.”

The filtering process is not a minor benefit. An adult oyster, according to the Ocean Conservancy, can filter 25 to 50 gallons of water a day.

Mr. Tetrault estimated that, along with the SPAT program and other projects by Cornell, in a good year up to a million oysters are raised on Long Island.

Fighting against the tide

But good years are sometimes hard to come by. Along with killer snails and rust, brown and red tides, “A disease popped up in the 1990s, known as ‘juvenile oyster disease,’” Mr. Tetrault said. “Wild stocks were naive to this disease so you wouldn’t get [replenishment] to the fishery.

Statistics recorded over the past 20 years, Mr. Tetrault said, reveal that 90 percent of New York State oysters have been raised through aquaculture.

Of late, government officials have awakened to the crisis occurring in Long Island waters, especially on the East End. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has instituted programs to reduce nitrogen from fertilizer runoff and antiquated septic systems  from poisoning ground and surface waters. Suffolk County’s Agriculture & Farmland Protection Plan was recently updated and mentions, for the first time, the aquaculture industry.

The plan outlines projects to “expand aquaculture activities” in the county; one aspect of the plan is giving oyster farmers opportunities for 10-acre leases at $250 per year.

Islander John Kerr has seen what toxins in the bays can do. A member of the SPAT program, the retired teacher also runs Camp Quinipet’s marine biology aquaculture program. He works with Cornell doing research such as tracking oyster sizes and behavior, he said.

But his setup under the Quinipet docks, he said, “has been decimated this year by the terrible ‘rust tide,’ with about 90 percent of my stock wiped out. Everything is a shambles.”

He had about 1,000 oysters, but “if I have 100 now I’ll be really surprised.”

It’s not a new experience; three years ago the same devastation occurred. “It’s really disheartening,” Mr. Kerr said.

The pioneer

A pioneer on the Island in raising shellfish, Corky Diefendorf, like the Munsons has never had an oyster-growing season wiped out. But his work with The Nature Conservancy’s “Shellfish Restoration Imitative” and at Mashomack in restoring shellfish to our waters has shown him the devastating effect of the killer tides.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Corky Diefendorf at his West Neck Creek aquaculture operation.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Corky Diefendorf at his West Neck Creek aquaculture operation.

He noted that successful oyster farming needs three things. “Water temperature, algae to feed on and water flow,” Mr. Diefendorf said, pointing out that the tides flow in and out of the bay into West Neck Harbor and up West Neck Creek past his dock.

He pointed to his growing system, of a line holding cages anchored to the bottom attached to another line ruining from the dock.

He flips the cages once a week, choosing low tide to wade out to his oysters.

Mr. Diefendorf has known shellfish since he was a boy. Born and raised in East Hampton, he’s a proud Bonacker, he said, recalling scalloping trips with his brother when they were young. “By the time we got home, we’d eaten half of them raw,” he said.

Raising oysters can only help the bays and other waterways, he said. “It’s the ‘bucket theory.’ Put algae and an oyster in a bucket, wait awhile, and it will be clean water.”

But he knows that “growing oysters is successful,” but getting rid of toxins, especially with the thousands of antiquated septic systems pouring nitrogen in the water, is not so easy.

“If we don’t do something soon,” he said, “we’re fighting a losing battle.”