The world is their oyster: The new wave of North Fork shellfish farmers

Ian Wile shucking at Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market in Greenport on a Saturday afternoon in July. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

The briny waters of Long Island Sound, Gardiners Bay and Peconic Bay not only surround the North Fork, but spill inland, too, filling an intricate web of salt marshes, tidal creeks, lagoons and small bays that scent the air and nourish an abundance of marine creatures. 

And nothing captures this sense of place more than oysters on the half shell. Or, for that matter, the menu at Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market in Greenport. The three-year-old retail operation, open year round, is housed in what was formerly White’s Bait & Tackle, one of the last remaining vestiges of a working waterfront that was the center of Long Island’s famed oyster industry in the 1930s. Proprietors Ian Wile and Rosalie Rung had the confidence to leave its irreplaceable patina alone, and their offerings are limited and straightforward. But what more do you need, after all, than oysters (from up to 12 different local farms), potato chips, a flourless New England-style chowder that lets the flavor of the clams shine and something good to drink?

Wile, formerly a Manhattan-based film editor, and Rung, from the online media world, had been active part-time residents of Greenport for roughly 15 years before making the move permanent around 2013. They owe their entré into the oyster business to Suffolk County’s aquaculture lease program for Peconic Bay.

“I had no great plan,” Wile cheerfully admitted. “I’d seen a public notice in The Suffolk Times announcing the lease program, so I applied and got one of the first rounds of 10-acre lease sites. It was a full jump into the deep end.

“The community is full of intelligent, open people and we got great advice,” he said. “We started slowly, and had no intention of opening a retail restaurant.” But as they reached out to other leaseholders — and became friends with the owners of the bait shop — life took a turn. Before they knew it, they found themselves creating a market and forum for local oyster farms — start-ups as well as legacy outfits and including some who struggle with inconsistent harvests or irregular deliveries.

“So much of what we do is about consumer education,” continued Wile, who is now on the Long Island Farm Bureau board of directors. “And regional marketing — the local wineries are a great example of what I’m talking about. Yes, they’re in competition with each other, but collectively, they make a lot of noise for a small region.”

A plate of oysters at Little Creek. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

What gives oysters much of their allure is that their flavor characteristics — briny, sweet, creamy, metallic, even a faint touch of melon or cucumber — come in large part from the waters in which they grow and the microalgae on which they feed. That’s one reason each “variety” is named for the place it’s harvested. Those cultivated locally are all from the same species, Crassostrea virginica (aka eastern or Atlantic oyster), which is indigenous to the East and Gulf coasts of North America. And thanks to advances in oyster culture, growing methods, strict handling protocols and refrigerated shipping, you can enjoy them all year long, even in months without an “r.”

The oyster beds of the East End, which once supported hundreds of baymen and cannery workers, have waxed and waned over the past two centuries, done in, most recently, by pollution, overfishing and the brown tide algae of the mid-1980s. Today’s oyster farmers are beginning to fill the void, aided by cleaner waters, a supply chain that prides itself on excellent traceability (in general, it’s never been safer to eat raw shellfish) and consumers who place a premium on knowing where their food comes from.

Full disclosure: I’m one of them. New York City chef (and Long Island native) Dave Pasternack introduced me to my first North Fork oysters, from Mike Osinski’s Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm, years ago. But upon becoming what Wile calls an extreme part-timer, I was delighted to find ultra-fresh specimens from Oysterponds Shellfish Company at my local farm stand, Latham’s, in Orient. Life seems very good, very good indeed, when you can just swing in off the causeway and pick up the beginnings of a delicious meal — not just corn, green beans, tomatoes, blueberries and just-dug new potatoes, but a few dozen beautiful bivalves that taste like the pristine salt creek they came from.

Oysters aboard the Peconic Gold Oysters barge in the Peconic Bay. (Credit: David Benthal)

Oysterponds Shellfish started life in 2001 as an aquaculture science project developed by Reg Tuthill, whose family has owned the coveted creek site since the 1640s, and marine science professor John Holzapfel. “But they quickly realized that there was a big demand for a good Northeast oyster,” said partner Phil Mastrangelo, who joined the company in 2013 and has helped it evolve to meet the new market. “The flavor of an oyster is a bit more complex than that of a clam, and people got smart about what they were eating,” he added.

You’d get no argument from the customers at Little Creek, where oyster farmers bring their bounty right through the front door. In fact, that’s how I met Matt Ketcham of Ketcham’s Seafarm in Great Peconic Bay. His signature Peconic Gold oysters, a house favorite at Little Creek, are delicately briny and on the petite side, making them a terrific cocktail oyster. Their strong shells and clearly defined hinges, physical characteristics that make them easier to shuck, are achieved by frequent shaking in a cylindrical machine called a tumbler. “He represents the new approach to growing oysters,” said Wile. “He grows for a specific size and shape.”

Ketcham’s love of the water was triggered at age 8 or 9. “My dad took me flounder fishing for my birthday,” said Ketcham, who now lives in Southold. “Later I worked in a tackle shop and on fishing boats, and then got my captain’s license.” Originally from Patchogue, he’s a graduate of the aquaculture and fisheries technology program at the University of Rhode Island and, like Wile, is one of Suffolk County’s first aquaculture leaseholders.

The crew at Peconic Gold Oysters aboard their boat. (Credit: David Benthal)

“I phased into oyster farming and am constantly reinvesting,” Ketcham said. He relies on a U-Fab pontoon boat with pulling gear, a Carolina Skiff, and his partner, Thomas Cassidy, a retired NYPD detective, to work his lease parcel as efficiently and sustainably as possible. His site is sheltered and shallow, he explained. This year, the water is so clear you can see eight feet down, he added, although you can’t see what’s going on until you winch the oyster cages on deck. That’s where the oysters, which are always growing at different rates, are tumbled, hand-sorted by size and either harvested or returned to the water to continue growing.

Ketcham, like a number of other oyster farmers, gets the bulk of his oyster seed, or spat, from Karen Rivara, a marine biologist who has been breeding and growing oysters for 30 years. In 2000 she formed the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative with eight other shellfish growers. From bases in Southold and near the mouth of the Mystic River in Connecticut, she works both sides of Long Island Sound.

I caught up with Rivara at Shellfisher Preserve, on land leased to the co-op from the Peconic Land Trust. There, at the edge of Southold Bay, she oversees the nurturing of oysters, hard clams and bay scallops in an underground shellfish hatchery and algae in the continuous-flow tanks above to feed them. Her own oysters include the trademarked Peconic Pearl; part of the proceeds from their sale benefit the Peconic Estuary.

Both inside and out, Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market provides a cozy place for shellfish lovers to kick up their feet and enjoy a true taste of the North Fork. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Shellfisher is integral to the history of oystering on the North Fork. The property belonged to the Plock family, of the Shelter Island Oyster Company, and included a number of innovative structures and systems that fell into disrepair after the family ceased operations in the 1970s. Starting in the early 1990s, the trust and the Plocks worked together to protect 14 of almost 22 acres. With funding from the trust, the National Grid Foundation and a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant, the facility — complete with a rebuilt oyster barn over a channel dredged to its original depth and used for growing seed and as a holding area — is humming once again.

One advantage of farming oysters and other filter feeders is that unlike some other types of aquaculture, the impact on habitats and other sea life is minimal. “Oyster farmers don’t put anything into the water except oysters. And they don’t take anything out of the water except bigger oysters,” wrote Rowan Jacobsen in “A Geography of Oysters.” Oyster farmers are obsessed with water quality because their product depends on it. And economic opportunities ripple out to commercial hatcheries such as

Shellfisher, of course, but also to related industries like suppliers of boats and gear.

“I’m an optimist. We’ll depend on the water more and more given our increasing population,” said Rivara. “And hopefully, consumers will stay onboard.”

The crew at Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market last month. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

I don’t see the proliferation of oyster happy hours and traveling raw bars for weddings and parties abating any time soon. In terms of growth to meet the demand, however, a big issue that concerns everyone I spoke with is the lack of infrastructure — and, Rivara added, “people who know stuff. Once lost, you can’t get these incredible assets back.”

“There’s almost no commercial waterfront left in Greenport,” Wile pointed out. “How do you grow a maritime business in a changing village?”

When it comes to landing and working oysters, you need a place to store cages and buoys, with a big walk-in cooler, said Ketcham. “But no one wants to see or smell that.” Maybe it’s time for consumer education 2.0.

Shucking gloves hang at Little Creek Oysters. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

SHUCKING YOUR OWN

There are a number of ways to go about shucking oysters, but for the prettiest presentation on the half shell, it pays to go in through the tapered hinge end. An oyster knife (available at fish markets and cookware shops) and a thick work glove are the only tools you need. First, rinse the oysters under cold running water. Then, holding each oyster flat side up (you don’t want to spill the delicious “liquor,” or briny juices) with your gloved hand, insert the knife into the tapered hinged end. Twist until the hinge loosens and pops open. Then slide the knife blade against the top shell to cut through the adductor muscle, freeing the oyster. After prying off the lid, so to speak, slide the knife along the bottom shell to release the oyster completely.

When it comes to sauces, there are several schools of thought. Purists swear by nothing more than a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and maybe a few Saltines as an accompaniment. Others prefer a tomatoey cocktail sauce brightened with horseradish and Worcestershire. And then there’s a classic mignonette sauce, which sounds fancy but is as simple as stirring together a little finely chopped shallot, freshly ground pepper, sherry vinegar and white-wine or Champagne vinegar. It’s all good.

This article also appears in the latest issue of northforker magazine, now on newsstands.