Oysters used to be so abundant in the five boroughs and on Long Island that one writer surmised they formed a sea wall around lower Manhattan. Old photos in the Greenport Maritime Museum show empty shells outside one of the village’s 14 processing factories reaching the roof.
Now, however, nature no longer gives us the abundance of that bivalve, which other than a possible storm barrier (who knows?) also cleans the water and provides an excellent delivery vessel for aphrodisiacs (we can hope) and zinc, iron, calcium, selenium as well as vitamins A and B12.
So man has stepped into the breach. Oyster farming is a growing industry on the East End, with many producers feeling their way to the best possible product.
Mike Martinsen and Michael Doall went all in after years of experience in commercial fishing (Martinsen) and research in marine biology (Doall at Stony Brook). The two met when Martinsen was finishing a degree in marine biology after working as an offshore fisherman.
Starting a shellfish farm was always on the back burner, and in 2009 the opportunity arose. Christened Montauk Pearls, the company adopted an innovation found in Connecticut and secured the first grow-out permit for surface oyster-growing in New York, says Martinsen.
Most oyster growers suspend flat square cages where their spat achieves maturity below the surface. Montauk Pearls puts these cages—they call them “bags”—on floats so that one side of the oyster is always exposed; the bags are flipped regularly. The benefit being, says Martinsen, a harder algae-free shell—a quality that many shucking chefs attest to and relish. Martinsen also says the water’s oyster-fattening nutrient level is high near the surface.
The company’s second innovation came from necessity, as most do. Martinsen and Doall were growing the oysters in Lake Montauk until they ran out of room. So for the oysters’ final growing stage the men rented space from the state in Block Island Sound, where Martinsen says the “clean and salty water, in addition to the surface grow-out, gives the oysters an ocean finish.” It seems restaurateurs agree. The oysters, which are not currently available retail, have been picked up by Veritas on 20th, Ed’s Lobster Bar, Mermaid Inn and Milos in Manhattan, and Bell & Anchor in Sag Harbor (shown above), Race Lane in East Hampton and South Edison and Gurney’s in Montauk.
Martinsen sees only expansion. He hopes to produce 1 million oysters next year and is tickled pink by the way everything has worked out. “The beauty of shellfish industry,” he says, “is that you’re not taking from the environment; you’re contributing to environment.” The oysters remove nitrogen and filter the water. And now, he says, the oysters are setting up in wild places nearby. In addition, the gear provides nice habitat for baby fish. He adds, “That’s good for the environment.”