In the 1980s, brown-tide algae wiped out the Peconic Bay scallop fishery. The ecosystem changed with the algae blooms’ arrival on east coast waters, and a changing way of life left that water fallow like a forgotten field. The canneries folded and disappeared, their decaying carcasses standing as a warning. At one time the Peconic Bay provided oysters by the tons. Fresh, shucked, smoked, canned. Greenport, New York was even a key oyster center. But the bay failed to sustain that level of industrial oystering.
At the time, I had just completed nearly a year of intense post production work on a film about American protest singer Phil Ochs that had a profound effect on my desire to take on a new, big challenge. My involvement with oysters started with a very tiny listing in the Suffolk Times in 2010.
The Suffolk County Department of Planning will hold a meeting Thursday for anyone interested in applying for the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay for the 2011 lease application cycle. Private oyster grant owners who wish to cultivate additional species on their grant parcels can also apply and are welcome.
This listing represented a landmark moment for oysters in the Peconic Bay. It was also an opportunity for me to take ownership of the waters, revive shellfish, and make an environmental impact. Through the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program and the generous mentorship of so many individuals, I learned about the history, process, and people of oyster farms around the globe. Then, I started my own oyster ranch.
The primary objective of Little Creek Oyster Ranch is growing high quality, sustainable food shipped fresh to consumers and restaurants. We also want to make the world better than we found it by creating jobs in a modern, positive working waterfront, enriching the surrounding community, and giving the environment a scrub in the process.
Environmentally, the benefits of our mighty oysters are simply too important to ignore. An oyster will naturally filter about 50 gallons of water per day. The math gets fun when you begin multiplying. One million oysters on the farm would mean almost 14 billion gallons of the bay filtered in a single growing season.
The ability of oysters to do this is often mentioned, but what gets less attention is the carbon sequestration they perform as they lock up carbon in their shells. There is potential to create a carbon credit for our effort to farm them. We 'Feed the Bay' by using a 'Throw Some Back' program, in which we set loose a percentage of our growing stock.
By taking a farming approach to shellfish production, oyster seeds are planted and harvested without damaging impact, forming the base of a healthy marine food chain. The farm itself essentially creates artificial reefs that have been shown to attract long missing sea-life. The farmers, by their very nature, become protectors of our shared natural resources.
As our oyster farm grows in the Peconic Bay, there is opportunity to make a bigger impact and create a modern aquaculture center—an incubator where small farmers can leverage shared resources such as centralized storage, processing, workspace, mentoring, shipping and logistics, as well as integrated educational and retail opportunities. The incubator would lessen the impact on farmers’ bottom line, lighten the burden on the environment, and reduce barrier to entry.
We have the potential to create a community-based working waterfront, carving it out of the skeletons of the aging light industrial properties. A technology initiative with solar and oyster shell recycling programs would encourage the experimentation and development of new tools and techniques.
The first seeds will go in the water this spring. What they could grow into is truly exciting. What we can do beyond those seeds has even more potential.
We recently launched a Kickstarter project to help build the necessary infrastructure to begin work. Early response has been amazing. While we have surpassed our initial project goal to build a better farm, the further we carry on will help us toward achieving our larger objectives to build a co-operative base with more equipment and space.
Join the conversation on Twitter @northforkoyster with the hashtag #UnShellfish or contact me at northforkoysters.com.
This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at good.is/food and on Twitter at #chewonit.
Photos courtesy of North Folk Oysters