Around the Island

Mashomack Musings: Protecting our precious oysters

Have you ever heard the adage that you shouldn’t eat shellfish unless the name of the month has an R in it?

That wisdom reminds us that warmer months are more likely to have harmful algae blooms, a phenomenon that increases in severity as nitrogen pollution increases and our waters become warmer. Summer is also spawning season for oysters. With energy funneled into reproduction, the meat can be thin. When cooler weather returns, oysters are once again prime for eating.

Oysters have been big business along the mid-Atlantic coast — and eastern Long Island — for centuries. These delicious bivalves flourish in brackish water, so estuaries where large rivers empty into the ocean are ideal.

The LI Welcome Center on the Long Island Expressway has a small display extolling the East End oyster industry. (Credit: Cindy Belt)

New York Harbor used to have extensive oyster beds, but pollution, dredging and shoreline development have drastically reduced their habitat Today’s populations are less than 0.01% of what they once were.

The ambitious “Billion Oyster Project,” a partnership of many organizations including The Nature Conservancy, is working to seed a billion oysters in the waters around the Big Apple. One adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day and a healthy one-acre reef filters approximately 24 million gallons of water daily, while simultaneously creating habitat for other animals.

Despite their amazing ability to filter water, oysters alone cannot solve the water quality challenges we face on Long Island. Nitrogen pollution, increasing pesticides and toxic chemicals in our water pose serious risks to human health. Nitrogen pollution from sewage has increased more than 200% in local groundwater supplies over the last 20 years. Setting a pollution reduction standard and regularly monitoring water quality will ensure that reductions in nitrogen pollution have been achieved.

Nothing is more important than having clean water to drink. But cleaning up our water supply will also protect oysters, and the Shelter Island way of life, for us and future generations.