I’m an avid fan of oysters – especially super fresh, local ones. If there’s a $1 oyster happy hour in NYC, odds are I’ve been there or at least know about it. These days, the focus of these happy hours isn’t just about luring in drinkers with cheap oysters as bait. Instead, the goal is to restore oysters to the New York harbor and New Jersey coastal areas.
Oystering thrived in this region from the 1600s until the early 1900s, when it was hit with an economic downturn — the Great Depression. By the 1950s, between overharvesting and diseases that attacked the oyster population, the industry was basically decimated. Towns like Bivalve and Shellpile — whose names reflect their once vibrant history — are all but deserted today, even though the surrounding water of the Delaware Bay remains largely unpolluted. With the oyster desire needing to be filled, farming in Nova Scotia, the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast increased, while the Chesapeake Bay took over the greatest portion on the East Coast of the US. Fortunately, with the recent focus on eating locally, Northeast oystering is making a comeback.
A number of programs on the East Coast have fostered local oyster restoration and farming. As a result, the availability of good, local oysters is starting to trend upwards. New farms are springing up on Long Island and off the New Jersey coast.
Following up on farming efforts, local restaurants offer support and raise awareness about oyster restoration programs through Happy Hour specials. As I’m scoffing up oysters at Mermaid Inn, I’m learning about where the oysters were grown. Servers are well-educated on sourcing, and there’s ample info on placemats and through their Oysterpedia App. On a recent visit, I tried the plump and mildly briny, Barcat oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy these juicy morsels, but I had the added benefit of eating a product whose proceeds went to sustaining oyster reefs and promoting aquaculture education. Although it would be nice if the oysters being promoted that day came from New York or New Jersey, oysters still aren’t as plentiful here to sell for $1 apiece. But that’s changing…
One key conservationist organization that has been instrumental in this process is NY/NJ Baykeeper. Since 1989, Baykeeper has been an advocate for local estuaries, and in particular has been helping to restore oysters to the region for over 10 years. Their NY Oyster Gardening Program, which allows schools, scouting troops, marinas, fishing clubs, families and civic organizations to care for 3/4 inch “seed” oysters for a year in floating cages in all 5 boroughs of New York City, has been a great success. Each month, the “Gardeners” collect data on oyster growth and mortality, which helps provide vital information about the water bodies in which the oysters are growing.
Raising the oysters provides benefits in addition to sustainable seafood and ensuring the health of our local waters. As Meredith Comi, Baykeeper’s Oyster Restoration Program Director, notes: “The oyster gardening program isn’t just beneficial for oysters and local ecosystems, it also gets people involved in the urban waterfront and creates a personal relationship with estuarine ecology. The project helps people become advocates of the estuary, seeing it as a vital living resource and home to an entire ecosystem. Many schools use the project as a ‘living classroom’ to enhance their science curriculum.” Baykeeper currently has 21 garden locations, with 10 more being added for the 2013-2014 season.
Unfortunately, efforts in NJ haven’t been as successful as those in NY. The NJ DEP has issued decisions making it all but impossible to conduct research or develop restoration programs in areas where the water quality is considered contaminated. But others are finding ways to farm oysters in areas that are deemed appropriate. Starting in 1997, Atlantic Capes Fisheries, in conjunction with Rutgers University, began introducing Cape May Salts to South Jersey. Bred to resist disease, these oysters have been thriving and appear on selective menus from Cape May to NYC. However, historic areas nearby, like Bivalve and Shellpile, remain largely overlooked and cannot compete with mass production.
But a great example is Matt Gregg of Forty North Oyster Farms, who has had success raising oysters off the NJ coast and was featured in the latest issue of Edible Jersey. There’s been lots of progress, even with the setbacks caused by Sandy, but there’s still lots of work to be done. Maybe I should get a plot and start farming….
In the meantime, I can support the efforts of Baykeeper at their 2nd Annual Oyster Benefit on May 7, which raises funds to support the NY/NJ harbor in the aftermath of Sandy. Tickets to the Oyster Benefit ($150) are still available. I’m looking forward to supporting a great cause and, of course, eating a few oysters.