Oysters on the Blind Brook bank
By Howard Husock
There was a time when oysters abounded around the waters of Rye and “watermen” harvested them commercially, for inexpensive popular consumption in Manhattan eateries. Today, oysters can still be found, but harvesting in Westchester is prohibited. The State Department of Environmental Conservation deems our waters “uncertified” (i.e., contaminated) and does not even bother to regularly test them.
Yet oyster “aquaculture” — in which the shellfish are cultivated in offshore cages — has taken off not far from Rye, including in three towns across the Sound: Hempstead, Islip, and, naturally, Oyster Bay. In Greenwich, residents can purchase shellfish permits and gather wild oysters and clams.
Interest in reviving the Westchester oyster population, and potentially hosting aquaculture, is growing. Among those advancing the idea is Emma Forbes, who leads the E=New York Sea Grant extension” office in Elmsford. Like federal land grant universities, charged with disseminating up-to-date information about agricultural science to farmers, the Sea Grant program, a collaboration of Cornell, CUNY Stony Brook, and the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), does the same for aquaculture.
Forbes hopes to begin an oyster restoration project in towns all along the Sound Shore, to grow oyster cages and monitor the health of the shellfish and their waters. It’s the same sort of project that Rye Middle and High School students pursued at the Milton Boat Basin.
The proposed citizen science project, says Forbes, could “one hundred percent seed commercial activity”, though, she adds, “it would be a long road.” A key first step: Finding out if cultivated oysters are healthy. It’s a test which the state’s DEC has, to date, chosen not to ask about the area’s wild oyster population, which can still be found on islands in the Blind Brook. The heretofore lack of interest in potential Westchester oystering, says Forbes, has deterred DEC from the effort and expense of such tests.
But towns on the Long Island side of the Sound have taken the matter into their own hands, and so could Rye. Oyster Bay and Islip have requested and gained control of their own waterbeds where aquaculture platforms stand, begun their own leasing programs, and — crucially — their own shellfish health testing programs. The Milford, Conn. NOAA Fisheries Lab provides exactly that service, and the City of Rye could, were it to direct funding to do so, avail itself of it.
Although they have not started such testing, two Sound Shore communities, Mamaroneck and New Rochelle, have asked Forbes for advice about how to establish their own oyster restoration projects, a small first step toward aquaculture. Says Forbes: “We want to work with all the towns all along the coast. The idea is to put cages tied to piers, private yacht clubs, and marinas and to have students and volunteers monitor growth and water quality.”
“We need more data, and this will help us to get it,” adds Forbes. She notes that potential collaboration with Save the Sound, the environmental advocacy group, would make sense, as well. Ultimately, Rye and other Sound Shore communities would need state legislation to permit the sale of leases and erection of aquaculture platforms.
The potential environmental and commercial payoffs could be substantial. As filter feeders, oysters actually help clean their waters. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, a clam about 25. And the shellfish industry already generates significant economic activity. When Hempstead Harbor reopened to the harvest of hard clams in 2011, after having been closed to such harvest for 45 years, it had, by 2014, become the source of 17,300 bushels of clams valued at $1.36 million. Suffolk County reports $5.3 million in sales of aquaculture products. That county has the right to operate its own aquaculture lease program. As of 2018, New York aquaculture was an $8.8 million business. The employment effects, both direct and indirect, involve everything from harvesting the shellfish to shucking them at Ruby’s Oyster Bar and Port Chester Seafood.
So, memo to local leaders: Let’s join Mamaroneck and New Rochelle in the Sea Grant citizen science oyster restoration project; let’s ask NOAA to test the health of our wild shellfish and their waters, and let’s aim toward ultimately restoring this “heritage industry”.