Learn Oyster Gardening — And Help Rebuild A Way of Life


Great Atlantic Shellfish Farms, located in Islip, NY, reached out to Save The Great South Bay because it is launching a new program:    Oyster Gardening.   The program, which consists of four evening classes, then a summer of gardening your own oysters, is designed particularly with school kids in mind.

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The timing for the launch of this school for teaching oyster cultivation could not be better:

  • Every marine scientist studying The Great South Bay in particular and polluted marine environments in general propose the use of oysters as a means of improving water quality; an oyster can filter 50 gallons a day.
  • Post-Sandy, as scientists sought ways to  build up ‘coastal resilience’ to prepare for future storms, it was again the oyster that was presented as a solution, such as in Governor Cuomo’s NYS 2100 Plan.   How better to harden our shorelines than with acres of oyster reefs?
  • The Town of Islip, Brookhaven and Babylon are all looking to lease bay bottom to oystermen, where ever the water is deemed clean enough and conducive to growing them.   But where once — as recently as the early ’80’s — the GSB employed 6000+ clammers, today there are very few baymen.   As the footprint for growing oysters expands — and the waitlist for obtaining an oyster lease gets longer — and as we continue to focus on oystering as an environmental strategy as well as a livelihood, we will need to give young people the hands-on training they needed.
  • Governor Christie has just signed a bill making it legal to use oysters for environmental remediation in uncertified waters.   Can New York, with all its troubled waters, be far behind?  The fear has been that people would poach oysters from these uncertified waters, sicken people, and so threaten the integrity of the shellfishing industry.   But if we can seed the oysters in the right places where the oysters would be secure, as stipulates the New Jersey law, we can begin to work with nature to heal it.
  • In New York City, we already have The Billion Oyster Project, which aims to clean New York Harbor by building 100 acres of oyster reef by 2030.   50 billion gallons per day, or the equivalent of 1000 Exxon Valdez oil tankers, would be filtered from just those 100 acres each day, making a marked difference in water quality.   By comparison, when the Dutch arrived, there were over 2300 acres of oyster beds in New York harbor, and that fed people for hundreds of years until by 1906, the harbor had become lifeless from the pollution.   The harbor’s come a long way since then, particularly with The Clean Water Act of 1972, but the harbor needs its oysters back to further heal.
  •  At the same time, The Billion Oyster Project is teaching young people — New York City school kids — how to raise the oysters.   They’ve a hatchery on Governor’s Island.   Given the scope of the solution, they need and get a lot of student volunteers.
  • Scape Studios, a forward thinking landscape architecture firm, is helping in the design of constructed reefs along the southern coast of Staten Island as a means of improving coastal resiliency.  Reefs cut down wave action and protects the shore.   We need them anywhere we can get the oysters to grow.  And we need people to help grow them.
  • Scape’s visionary Founder, Kate Orff, proposed in 2010 that The Gowanus Canal could be cleaned with oysters, dubbing the technique oyster-tecture.   You may also view her TED Talk “Reviving New York’s Rivers — With Oysters!” here.
  • Out in The Great South Bay, near The Breach south of Bellport Bay (also called Bellport Inlet) Cornell University Cooperative seeded 100,000 oysters this past summer in its Spat Program, using the ingenious method of sticking the spat to the old oyster shells.    A recently formed group, Friends of Bellport Bay, helped in attaching the spat and the seeding.    The goal is to create an oyster colony that will increase the footprint of healthy water near the inlet, with all the ecological benefits that would accrue as the colony grew.  
  •  This summer, Prof. Jeff Levinton of Stony Brook, who has made a study of oysters and their ability filter polluted waters clean, and Daria Sebastiano, his graduate student, published a seminal paper on what oyster cultivation would mean for both Jamaica Bay and The Great South Bay: Using A Shellfish Harvest Strategy To Extract High Nitrogen Inputs in Urban and Suburban Coastal Bays:  Practical and Economic Implications.    The implications are in fact staggering.    He argues that Jamaica Bay and The Great South Bay could both be cleaned by oysters, lots of them.   While Jamaica Bay’s waters are contaminated by industrial pollutants (which the oysters would remove over time), and so could not be considered for the shellfish market, those grown in The Great South Bay would indeed be edible, and even quite lucrative to grow potentially.   Levinton estimates that putting 5000 acres under cultivation (about 8 square miles ) would take care of 147% of the bay’s nitrogen problem, in other words, ‘problem solved’ with the dividend of many millions of oysters to take to market each year; a revival of Long Island’s oyster industry after almost 80 years after it collapsed.    So again, as we look to implement aquaculture / environmental remediation at scale, who will have the experience to do this work? 

In Sayville, where I grew up, and all along The South Shore, kids found their summer jobs on the bay, as opposed to the mall, or at a fast food restaurant.  The money was great, you made your own hours, your hair was bleached from the sun, and you were tanned and strong from “working the bay,” and it was indeed work.  Thousands of people, post high school, made clamming their living, often generation to generation.   So it had been for hundreds of years. When the shellfishing in the bay collapsed around 1985, with the first massive brown tide, a result of too much nitrogen in the water and too many cesspools leaching that nitrogen into our groundwater and then into the bay, we came to believe, with some reason, that a way of life was gone forever.

Now, with all that is happening, with Great Atlantic Oyster Farms in Islip and Blue Island Oyster, right in West Sayville, along with a some other fledging enterprises looking to establish themselves, there is hope.

As I noted on this blog, back in October I was informed that Sayville High School’s Freshman Class had selected Save The Great South Bay as the non-profit they would support this year.  Part of the mission for these 260 students is to help implement a local moratorium on pesticides and high nitrogen lawn fertilizers so that the local oysters would grow better,  which in return would, make the local water cleaner, using nature to create a virtuous cycle for the bay’s waters.   The more oysters, the more oysters, so to speak.

Since October, we have been contacted by various groups in other towns that would like to join the local moratorium, opening up the potential for other communities to improve the prospects for their local shellfish populations.   Here is a link to an article detailing how Save The Great South Bay could, concretely, help a local group get the word out about the connection between lawn care practices and local water quality.   Inarguably the biggest contributor to the bay’s nitrogen by far are the hundreds of thousands of cesspools in the sandy low lying ground of Long Island.   However, while we address that, we need to make what progress we can so that we can start to see our filter feeders reestablish themselves.   In 1976, 40% of the bay was filtered by clams each day.  When over-clamming and habitat destruction lowered that figure, the downward spiral was swift; today bivalves only filter 1% per day, and harvests are down 99%.

The Collapse of Shellfishing in the GSB, Scallop Landings in NY
The Collapse of Shellfishing in the GSB, Scallop Landings in NY

There is not only the faith we can bring those numbers up, but there is also a recognition of the necessity of bringing those numbers up if we are to prevent the bay’s complete collapse.   Can we bring back the bay?    We can and we must.

Ending at the beginning, that is why having classes on oyster gardening taught to our young is so important.    We need many hundreds of apprentice oystermen to really make a dent, to really start to turn the tide in The Great South Bay, and in other bays.   Until quite recently, The Great South Bay supplied 2/3rds of all the hard shell clams eaten in the U.S.   The Blue Point Oyster, which now we are trying to bring back, is still world famous.   The bay was a “shellfish factory” for hundreds of years.   Just maybe, it can again.

Here is a link detailing the class itself — the aim, the curriculum.   You can download the registration form from this page.

I’ll take the liberty, however, of posting the course overview as images so you can see them right in this post.   Looks amazing.    Not only will you help clean the water and learn a trade, you will also have oysters to meet, and fellow oystermen, present and future.    We need not only our bay back, but the jobs that we lost as well, that The South Shore lost.