by Kelly Mertz for Change Food September 10, 2015
For most of us, the passing of Labor Day represents the end of summer—a last call for beach days, vacations, and sweet summer produce. However, when one door closes, another one opens. On land, September brings a lush harvest of figs, pears, apples, eggplants, beets, green beans, cucumber, and so forth. In the water, and on the shores of Long Island in particular, September means oyster season, which runs through March. The mineral-rich mollusks are beginning to fatten themselves up to prepare for the brisk Northeastern winter, making their edible flesh meatier, more flavorful, and ready to be harvested and eaten by shellfish lovers around the world.
Oysters are an integral part of the ecosystems of both the Long Island Sound and the Great South Bay, as they thrive on the hard sea floors and saltiness of these waters. As a main agricultural product of the region, oyster harvesting is a mainstay in the economies of Long Island’s coastal towns, begetting township names such as Oyster Bay. About 35 miles from New York City, Oyster Bay has been the home of the Oyster Festival since 1983, which last year drew a crowd of 215,000 people. So for the people, animals, and environment of Long Island, oysters are a big deal.
Unfortunately, the once-plentiful supply of oysters on Long Island has been considerably depleted in recent decades, due to overfishing, pollution, brown algae, and increasingly harsh weather patterns that bring storms such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coasts of New York and New Jersey. Yet, in the midst of these odds, local leaders in sustainable agriculture, as well as public-private partnerships, are making huge strides towards replenishing Long Island’s oyster population.
One such leader is Change Food friend Brian Halweil, whose 2011 TedxManhattan talk, “From New York to Africa, Why Food is Saving the World” gave us insight into how what we eat, and how we produce it, can be our greatest ally in combatting environmental problems. And he proves it: Brian himself belongs to the Cornell University Marine Center Citizen Oyster Farming Program, the largest community-run aquaculture program of it’s kind in the United States. Upon registering for this program, which anyone can sign up for, you receive basic training in shellfish aquaculture, oyster babies, a cage, and even a spot on the waterfront to keep your oysters. And it’s taken off, with over 300 areas on Long Island alone, inspiring programs as nearby as Brooklyn and as far away as Japan.
On it’s own, the average oyster would take about four years to mature to the optimal size of three inches. With care and attention, however, it may grow to that size in half the time. This means a faster growing, more densely populated oyster community. Now, one oyster alone siphons and filters about 40 gallons of water each day. Consider the impact of a community of millions of oysters, and you have yourself a program that is cleaning up pollution and putting people to work in major ways.
Community aquaculture programs such as these are the “glimmers of hope” that “change minds and inspire people to change their behavior” that Brian speaks about in his TedxManhattan Talk. This oyster season, enjoy the plentiful harvest (December is when they reach their peak meatiness) and consider supporting community-sponsored aquaculture by purchasing your oysters from companies who source from local programs.
Want to learn more? You can listen to Brian’s inspiring TedxManhattan Talk here. If you live in the New York metro area, be sure to check out this year’s Oyster Festival on October 17th and 18th. You can also subscribe to Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan, or Edible Brooklyn, depending on your community, for in-season recipes, events, restaurant guides, and more.
Kelly Mertz is a contributing writer for Change Food. She earned her undergraduate degree in International Studies and French Language from American University, where she focused on International Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. She is fascinated by public nutritional health campaigns and the politics of food aid.
Change Food is a nonprofit whose mission is to connect and transform the food we eat, the people who produce it, and the world in which it is grown. To read and learn more, visit The Guide to Good Food blog.