Fighting to keep an oyster ghost town alive

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D. Young

Chris Quartuccio and his team must deal with ocean acidification—and plenty of naysayers—to try to ensure that Long Island remains an important point for oyster harvesting.

The man at the helm of Blue Island Shellfish, Chris Quartuccio, wants to make sure I see Blue Point, home of the most famous oysters in the world. At least, it used to be. Dressed in jeans and a gray and red striped sweater, with his gold wedding band catching the weak March light, Quartuccio is giving me a tour of his oyster farm. We climb into his navy blue four-door truck, still spattered with the white salt of wintertime road slush, and pull out of the oyster company’s muddy drive. Keenan Boyle, Blue Island’s traveling oyster bar manager and oyster shucker extraordinaire, comes along for the ride.

As we drive through the neighboring towns of Sayville and West Sayville, Long Island, Quartuccio points out businesses that were once named for a then-booming local oyster industry. The bank, he says, was called the “Oysterman’s Bank,” and the volunteer fire department, “the flying Dutchmen,” after the Dutch families that once flocked to the bay to harvest oysters, and so on. Years ago, four trains a day would carry the brimming barrels of live oysters in seawater to New York and its harbor, to be sold in city restaurants or shipped as far away as Europe. But all that has faded.

“Now it’s an oyster ghost town,” Quartuccio says. “We’re trying to keep it alive.”

Oyster farms have experienced a renaissance of late, as their popularity continues to grow and price points climb, turning a once floundering industry profitable again. Between the years 2000 and 2008, the number of aquaculture leases in the New York area alone jumped from 38 to 51, and harvests at individual farms doubled. The celebrated shellfish are now commercially grown in every coastal American state except Delaware. But oysters everywhere are increasingly threatened. Ocean acidification has wreaked havoc on oyster hatcheries on the West Coast, causing some operations to move their nurseries as far away as Hawaii. On the East Coast, from Virginia to Maine, ecologists and oyster farmers alike are trying to restore native oyster beds using a variety of methods, in the hope of bringing life back to aquatic ecosystems decimated by centuries of over-harvesting and pollution. The goal is also to try to mitigate the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on shorelines, with oyster reefs acting as buffers. But these efforts now face challenges from a different type of ocean acidification; one that could even put an end to shellfish growing outside the reach of acidic upwelling events: eutrophication, or rapid acidification from within, caused by massive algae bloom die-offs. (…)

Where they are native, oyster reefs provide vital habitat in an estuary. In areas where the Billion Oyster Project has placed the bivalves, the number of organisms living there has gone from “basically zero,” as Restoration Program Manager Samuel Janis put it, to as many as 23,000 individual animals. These include everything from microscopic copepods to fish and different species of ducks, happily diving for their dinners. They call what the kids are doing “oyster gardening,” and schools across the five boroughs can apply to be given an “oyster garden,” i.e., a submersible structure for growing oysters on, along with waterside access to tend it.

“We’ve gotten a lot of publicity, I think, because people are really excited by the idea of restoring the harbor with oysters, and with kids doing the work and learning about it at the same time,” Janis says. “But it existed more in proposal form for a number of years. We were trying to flesh out the public programs but, like, without funding that’s hard.”

While the project was officially launched last year, Janis says this is the first year it will really get off the ground, thanks to a big grant from the National Science Foundation.

Summer Brennan, Pacific Standard, 20 May 2015. Article (excerpts).


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