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.
Oystering has been prevalent in the Great South Bay—the body of water between the southern shore of Long Island and Fire Island—since the early 1800s. European-Americans first harvested oysters there near a little bump of land they named Blue Point which, when viewed against the Atlantic at certain times of day, appeared to be shrouded in a blue haze. The public went crazy for the new oysters, and they were among the first food products in the United States to be advertised nationally. The Blue Point logo was stamped on posters, coasters, and matchbooks from Boston to St. Louis. The bay was busy with oystermen until 1938, when a hurricane blew through and buried the already-over-harvested beds in silt and sand. With the natural hard substrate gone, the native oyster population could not re-establish itself and was eventually extinguished.
This all predates Chris Quartuccio. Born and raised in Sayville, Quartuccio started harvesting oysters from Long Island Sound in 1996, when he was 30, but he was a recreational clammer long before that, beginning at the age of 12. (Unlike oysters, clams flourish in soft-bottom bays, and don’t need to be suspended in bags or grown on hard surfaces.) After the 1930s, the Great South Bay became prime habitat for hard-shell, soft-shell, and cherrystone clams. There’s a large framed photo in Quartuccio’s office of the bay at the height of its clamming industry, in the mid-'70s, decades after the old oysters had vanished. It is crowded with small boats manned by shirtless men, the poles of their yards-long clamming tongs submerged in the water. But all of the clams were mostly dug up by the early 1980s, and besides, the price for clams had plummeted.
“You can’t make a living on the bay, this bay, digging clams anymore,” Quartuccio says.
Oysters, however, are a different story.
Back at Blue Island’s headquarters, Quartuccio and Boyle walked me through the warehouse where harvested oysters and those bought wholesale for distribution are processed and packed into the appropriate mesh bags. The unused bags sit in fat stacks of different colors: white, orange, red, Kelly green, and dark purple. Some oysters were already bagged up with their brand names stamped on, including plump Blue Whales from Long Island Sound and dark Black Duck Salts from Virginia. Blue Island has three large walk-in coolers for shellfish storage, nicknamed Larry, Curly, and Moe. Normally, the coolers are packed with different varieties, but in late winter, with much of the local shoreline still locked in ice, the rooms were sparse and echoey. Inside the wet storage facility, called “the pool room,” are two wide concrete tubs about 15 feet square and three feet deep, with drains in the floor and faucets that connect to a saltwater well. During my visit, one of the tanks was nearly empty while the other was stocked with crates of longneck soft-shell clams, nicknamed “piss clams.” Quartuccio picked up one of the crates and jostled it against the edge of the tank to illustrate why. The pale clams spurted out foot-long jets of water from their dark mouths. It fountained out in all directions.
"It’s an oyster ghost town. We’re trying to keep it alive."
Naming oyster types can be a little like naming paint colors or shades of lipstick. There’s an art to it, and a good name can help an oyster stand out on a menu, and might even increase sales. Blue Island has a number of peripheral varieties, like the Blue Whales—a title reserved for especially corpulent individuals—and four workhorse brands that make up the bulk of its merchandise. These are Navy Points, out of Huntington Bay on Long Island’s north shore; Tomahawks, raised with the cooperation of the nearby Shinnecock tribe; Blue Islands, farm-raised in the Great South Bay; and Naked Cowboys, a wild oyster named for the beefy Times Square street performer who plays his guitar for tourists in nothing but a cowboy hat, boots, and a pair of tight white briefs. It’s cheesy, fun, maybe even a little crass, but it succeeds in grabbing customers’ attention.
“I come up with all the names,” Quartuccio says proudly. “I came up with Naked Cowboy, Blue Island. Yeah, I’m Mr. Name Person.”
Technically, an oyster can only be called a Blue Point if it is grown in the Great South Bay. (There’s even a law dated back to 1908 still on the books about it.) But almost nobody pays this any mind anymore and oysters from elsewhere get called Blue Points or Bluepoints all the time, even when the oysters in question come from as far away as Connecticut or New Jersey’s Delaware Bay. After all, it’s the brand that sells.
(While writing this article, I saw Blue Points advertised at both my local Whole Foods market and a small upscale grocery, but neither were from the Great South Bay. The man at the fish counter at the upscale grocery was especially vague. “They’re local,” he answered when I asked where the oysters came from. When I pressed for more specifics, he said: “They’re from the United States.”)
To get away with being a good Blue Point counterfeit (or homage), an oyster must be of a goodly but not intimidating size. It must not be too briny or too meaty. It should be fresh of nose and should flirt with mildness without actually being dull. But even though Quartuccio’s company is among the only operations farming oysters near Blue Point, he decided against using the name because the brand has become too diffuse. He’d rather people get to know the name Blue Island instead and associate their different brands with high quality. He calls the oysters they farm near Blue Point Blue Islands or sometimes Blue Point No. 9s. They’re grown suspended in bags, near where ocean water frequently washes into the bay, bringing in fresh nutrients.
“Me being in the oyster business and stuff,” Quartuccio says, “I thought it was important to put a real genuine Blue Point back on the market.”
Blue Island Shellfish Farms isn’t the only one working to restore famous historic native oyster populations in the New York area. A Long Island Railroad train ride away, in New York Harbor, the Billion Oyster Project has a highly ambitious restoration scheme of its own.
Housed in former Coast Guard barracks on Governor’s Island with a view of downtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, the Billion Oyster Project works in conjunction with the New York Harbor School, a public high school that specializes in maritime studies. Here, its more than 400 students learn how to build and operate boats, design submersibles, and take part in underwater dives—as well as how to spawn millions upon millions of oysters intended to re-populate New York City’s waterways. Once the oyster capital of the world, the city’s plentiful oyster population had been wiped out by over-harvesting and pollution by the start of the 20th century. The Billion Oyster Project is hoping to reverse that.
Both an ecosystem restoration effort and an education program combined, the project was first pitched as an aquatic answer to the Million Trees NYC initiative and was re-named the Billion Oyster Project in 2014. Their proposed action, which they are still in the process of implementing, was to re-build two miles of oyster reefs off of the southern tip of Staten Island, near Tottenville, a community hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. The idea is that restored reefs could lessen the effects of storm surges. They also have smaller oyster colonies already established near Governor’s Island itself; near the Brooklyn Navy Yards; in Jamaica Bay; and in the Bronx River. But, according to program direct Peter Malinowski, whose family farms oysters on Fishers Island, oyster fanatics shouldn’t get any ideas about sampling the new stock.
“So these oysters aren’t edible?” I ask.
“No. They’re all poisonous,” he says.
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.
“Me being in the oyster business, I thought it was important to put a real genuine Blue Point back on the market.”
Before our interview, Malinowski took me to see the BOP hatchery on the Harbor School’s ground floor, which hummed with the muffled roar of water filters in the room’s many, many tanks. There were tall clear cylinders of harbor water in varying shades of green, depending on the density of added plant matter. This is oyster food. When first spawned, oysters are mobile and without shells, zipping through the water before their shells start to calcify around them and they settle onto a hard surface to grow. Malinowski moved the lid off of one of the spawning tanks to show me the swimming larvae. A dark juniper color, the water was hard to see through, so Malinowski turned the flashlight function of his iPhone on and submerged it (it had a waterproof case.) The oyster larvae showed up like dust motes floating in a sunbeam.
“Some of them are cruising around, and some of them are just kind of sitting there,” he pointed out.
“Why would they ... why are they sitting there?” I asked.
“They’re just not that psyched,” he answered. “I mean, the water quality isn’t that great in New York, right?”
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Indeed it isn’t. While the harbor is now the cleanest it has been in over a century—thanks to the more than $10 billion the city invested over the past 13 years to improve it—it is nevertheless still teeming with bacteria and contaminated by sewage and hazardous materials. New York City’s inhabitants produce more than a billion gallons of wastewater every day, sent down the drain via sinks, showers, and toilets. Like many older large urban centers, wastewater and rainwater is carried through the same pipe system, and during storms the system’s capacity is exceeded, dumping a mix of raw sewage and storm runoff into the harbor. In some areas of the city, wastewater is still absorbed directly into the ground, with the chemical byproducts of whatever was flushed or dumped down the drain eventually leeching into the water table. However, even properly treated sewage can cause problems because it is loaded with nitrogen, which lowers the oxygen level of the water, making it harder for sea life to survive.
Oysters are known for being able to filter their water habitat, and so oyster restoration projects intending to “clean” waterways have been started all over the country. A single oyster can filter a gallon of water an hour, or 24 gallons a day. A billion oysters could filter the standing bottom of New York Harbor once every three days—hence the project’s name, although a billion oysters still won’t solve all of New York City’s water problems.
“The reality is that the water never stands still,” Malinowski says. “Many, many times that [much] flows in and out of the harbor every day.” Still, the project was named for the number of oysters they hoped to plant on 500 acres of new reefs. “Mostly it was a nice sounding name,” he says.
But oysters are not a panacea for water pollution; they can’t absolve us of our sewage and modern chemical sins.
“They aren’t going to remove any toxins from the system, because they are in the system,” Malinowski says. “So, unless you take [the oysters] out, whatever toxins they’re ‘removing’ are gonna stay there. Or, they’ll be eaten by other animals and eventually move up the food chain and move out.”
The biggest pollutant in most urban areas is treated sewage, which is released into bays and estuaries as nitrogen, lowers oxygen in the water, acts as fertilizer to cause an algae bloom, and then pumps in carbon dioxide when the algae decomposes. Hence, acidification from within. Oysters can help mitigate that by thinning out the algae. Too much algae, though, will suffocate and kill them. Last year, Blue Island Shellfish Farms lost more than half of its crop to such an algae bloom. Once the water becomes too acidic, the oysters will simply refuse to grow. The Billion Oyster Project is hoping to put enough bivalves back into the New York Harbor so that their sheer numbers will give them a fighting chance. But it’s an uphill battle, in part because the harbor’s oyster reef infrastructure from centuries past, made up of generation upon generation of oyster shells, is now completely gone.
“It takes thousands of years for oyster reefs to grow that tall,” Janis says, explaining the height needed to make a difference for rising sea levels. “The reefs that once helped protect the islands of New York Harbor from storm surges were all pulled out of the harbor by people in the 1700s and early 1800s. They were used in construction. They’re in the buildings downtown and under the streets.”
To re-build reefs, Janis, Malinowski, and their students take cured shells donated from restaurants and pile them in, or else place new live oysters on top of structures made from cement or rebar. The two-mile reef south of Staten Island will be covered in oyster shell, but will not be made of it. The base will be concrete.
The Billion Oyster Project staff is highly critical of anyone who harvests wild oysters, arguing that they diminish the natural reefs. They cast a skeptical eye toward the oystermen of Blue Island Shellfish Farms, who, for some of their oyster varieties at least, are doing just that.
“They might as well be harvesting tigers,” Malinowski says.
On our drive from his West Sayville headquarters to Blue Point, Quartuccio tells me about how he discovered the Naked Cowboy oysters, which come from a natural wild oyster reef in a secret location in Long Island Sound. He explains the difference between wild oysters versus farmed ones, and what farmers and environmentalists alike have done to try to jumpstart wild populations. One technique is called “shelling,” similar to what the Billion Oyster Project has done, wherein a large quantity of clean, cured oyster shells—to make sure there are no pathogens being introduced—is dropped onto the water bottom right before nearby oysters are about to spawn. It gives the larvae more opportunity to attach and survive.
Quartuccio was already diving for oysters in Long Island Sound when he heard a rumor about a new bed, a big one—the bed that would become the site of the Naked Cowboy harvests.
“This one guy, who kind of had a big mouth, told me where they were,” Quartuccio says. “He says to me, ‘Chris, I’m seeing oysters in places I’ve never seen 'em before.’ Back in the day, discovering oysters like that was big news! They’d make the paper. Well, that’s what happened to us with the Naked Cowboy oyster. We discovered this large bed just north of Port Jeff harbor. A natural bed.”
Quartuccio’s phone rings, but he doesn’t answer.*
“So, you’re down there diving on the stuff, and everything is like the size of dimes and quarters,” Quartuccio continues, “and you’re lookin' at the millions and millions of oysters, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great,’ you know? Conditions just have to be right to get a natural set. And we had a natural set out there, and it was just like, wow, another year and we’re gonna be haulin' in a ton of oysters.”
As his Instagram feed shows, Quartuccio likes to personally check on his Naked Cowboys. There’s also a photo of his full dive team, eight men and one woman. Quartuccio is wearing mirror shades. Arms crossed, legs planted apart, they carry oxygen tanks and flippers and knives for cutting the oysters from the beds. They look like the Avengers. When I ask him if he’s careful that his crew doesn’t take too many of the wild oysters, he says no.
“The goal is to get as many oysters on the boat as you can,” he says with a laugh, “Yeah. There’s no quota, no restrictions. It’s a free-for-all out there.”
But it is not a free-for-all when it comes to size. It’s illegal to pull up a wild oyster that is smaller than three inches, so the oysters can have a chance to spawn. Quartuccio stresses that he is strict in abiding by that rule. He also makes sure that he and his staff chip off all of the baby oysters that they find clinging to the shells of the more mature specimens that they harvest, so that the babies can fall back into the water and attach to the reef.
“The worst thing you can do is let your boat drift to deep water as you’re culling and chipping and throwing shells back,” he explains. “If you start dropping oysters in 100 feet of water, they’re going to die. You want to return them to the bed. That’s how you sustain the industry. And of course there’s the size limit. We’re not taking the little ones. You’ll wipe out an industry real fast if you’re catching every single oyster.”
Quartuccio has other, more tangible fears to worry about.
“A lot of people say, Oh, you know, the oystermen are over-harvesting the oysters and this and that,” he says. “That’s not the problem. The problem is these naturally occurring die-offs, you know. Because it’s a sustainable industry. There aren’t a lot of people doing it so there isn’t really any over-harvesting being done.”
Among Quartuccio’s biggest worries : hurricanes and other storms that might cause the beds to silt over. So after Hurricane Sandy, Quartuccio was in a panic.
“We were out diving after, and the oysters were about 70 percent covered,” he says. “There was just a little bit sticking out, like, ‘Oh my god! They’re gonna die! We’re gonna lose 'em all!” Fortunately, the oysters survived.
“The goal is to get as many oysters on the boat as you can. There’s no quota, no restrictions. It’s a free-for-all out there.”
Algae blooms present by far the biggest threat to Quartuccio’s oysters. Last year, the blooms caused Blue Island Shellfish to lose 50 percent of their oysters, and this year they plan to send away to Maine for more oyster seed in an effort to replenish their stocks. The algae blooms are an especially big problem in the Great South Bay, where so many of the local communities’ homes lack modern cesspools to dissolve the nitrogen from the sewage. Instead, that nitrogen seeps into the bay, or to a lesser degree into Long Island Sound, causing eutrophication-induced ocean acidification. Fertilizers used on lawns also contribute to the problem. To fight this, Quartuccio has invented a grassroots environmental campaign he calls Operation Blue Earth.
“It’s not me, it’s the scientists who are saying it,” Quartuccio says. “There’s too much waste going in the ground; too much waste being thrown on top of lawns. Hopefully this will turn into something worth writing about, otherwise I’m stuck with a lot of blue and green magnets!”
The Billion Oyster Project agrees that the fastest way to stop acidification in the Northeast would be to reform city waste management infrastructure to curb the outpouring of nitrogen and untreated sewage. And it wouldn’t just help to save the oysters. One fifth of all striped bass in the North Atlantic still come into the New York Harbor and the Hudson River to spawn each year. Such reform would cost billions, but the staff of BOP knows it’s worth it.
“Investing in long term health, in quality of life, in property values, and the resiliency of the city—that stuff is impossible to quantify,” Janis says. “That’s the most compelling argument for me. You can turn New York City into a city that has swimmable water again. You can change the face of the city. If you have harbor seals swimming through, and people fishing for striped bass, and people able to swim and boat and not be afraid—that is the future that restoring oysters would lead to.”
Quartuccio shares that enthusiasm, at least for restoring oysters; he just thinks it should be done where they can also be harvested for human consumption. The last thing he wants is for the Naked Cowboy cache to run out. They are, after all, his biggest seller, and have helped substantially with getting his company name out there. Blue Island is now expanding, and will open an oyster restaurant in Denver this fall.
The thing is, the wild Naked Cowboy oysters are delicious. They do taste special. I always order them when I see them on menus and have never been disappointed. Can they really be harvested like this sustainably? Only time will tell.
Once we reach Blue Point, Quartuccio stops the car and I get out. The spring winds press against my wool coat, finding a way to seep their icy touch through the fibers. I walk onto an old wooden jetty with a sign that reads "Blue Point Dock," posted above a covered bench area. The water all around me is frozen solid, faded white and pastel blues and greens. Looking out at the eponymous bump of land in the distance, seen against the Atlantic, it does look a little blue. In a few weeks the ice will thaw and Blue Island Shellfish will get to work, harvesting oysters from the Great South Bay once more.
*UPDATE — May 21, 2015: This article has been updated to better describe a phone call that Chris Quartuccio received.