An age-old venture to multiply mollusks realizes big, new potential.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Shinnecock, an Algonquin people, have populated the shores of eastern Long Island. Their creation story states that they were born here and have always relied on the sea. Years ago, says Jonathan Smith, the brightly focused purveyor of the privately owned Shinnecock Oyster Farms, the Shinnecock used branches to which young swimming oysters (Crassostrea virginica or the Atlantic oyster) would attach. Once secured, the branches full of bivalves were brought closer to shore to “farm.”
Many centuries later, in the early 1970s, the Shinnecock sent a few members to the Lummi Indian School of Aquaculture (now the Northwest Indian College) to study new techniques; in 1973, the Oyster Project began. With his sister, Mabel Cuffee, as the director of the Oyster Project’s hatchery, and his brothers, Lamont and Gerrord, also working there, Johnathan’s family quickly became an oyster farm in the making. But then, a few years later, the hatchery closed down. Brown tide and nitrogen runoff from farms near the Great Peconic Bay created a hostile environment for the oysters at this delicate stage, and the hatchery became a burdensome financial commitment. Twenty years later, the Shinnecock realized the key to oyster production lay in the waters around their land. Better suited for the “grow-out phase,” when the oysters are farmed until sizable enough to eat, the waters around the reservation gave birth to the first of the Shinnecock oyster farms owned by the tribe.
With approximately 1,300 members, 600 to 700 of whom live on the 865-acre reservation, the Shinnecock now live near the town of Southampton. In 2004, the tribe received a grant of $300,000 from the Administration for Native Americans, so they could purchase seed and equipment to develop an oyster farm. A few years later, Smith, who in 1984 opened the Shinnecock Smoke Shop on Montauk Highway, used his earnings to develop his own private farm on the Shinnecock reservation, where the land is available to members and up for grabs. “The tribe welcomes development of all sorts,” says Jonathan, “encouraging individuals to make the best use of the land.” And so there is a constant exchange of information between the tribalowned farm and Smith’s Shinnecock Oyster Farm. Honoring the spirit of his community, Jonathan sets aside tanks for others within the tribe, hoping they might develop similar programs. “It’s the only way you can survive,” he says, commenting on the Shinnecock way of life. “The world has to learn that, the oneness, in truth that’s all it is.”
Pulling into the dusty lot of the Shinnecock Smoke Shop, David, my research assistant, and I follow Jonathan to his house on the reservation. Here we snake past the side of the house, bypassing the inground pool and manicured gardens, lush and green and red with giant hibiscus. To the left of the footpath, coops house chickens, pheasants and a primary-colored golden pheasant; to the right, tucked behind trees, stands a sweat lodge. At land’s end, the mollusk farm begins in the form of an upwelling system where the oyster seed (or spat) spends six to eight weeks in tanks. Tiny spat, 1 to 2 millimeters across, are grown here until they’re 12 weeks old, or 30 to 35 millimeters, at which point they’re relocated to the tray systems in Shinnecock Bay, and a nearby marsh.
“We work with nature,” says Jonathan, gesturing toward Heady Creek, where he draws water into the system. Circulating within the tanks, the water cleanses and feeds while tumbling the oysters. This knocks off new growth at the edge of the shells and helps the bivalves develop deep cups. “With what God has given us,” says Jonathan. “We don’t add anything. No fertilizer. No food. We move water from point A to point B. Our boss is the oyster, and they just tell us what to do.”
At Shinnecock Bay, we walk along the shore hoping to catch a glimpse of the farm. A small motorboat passes, and we pause until it’s gone; potential predators aren’t always from the sea. Wading at high tide, we walk until kneedeep, but still the farm is out of reach. Jonathan picks up a few bivalves that have strayed close to shore. Looking at the mollusks in his hand, I wish now more than ever that I’d brought my shucking knife.
Behind us stands the marsh where peat yields the nutrients that support the algae on which the oysters feed. Nearby, ponds bleed into the marsh and bay, helping reduce the water’s salinity, making it ideal for oyster growth. As juveniles, the oysters sit in suspended trays for six to eight months. They’re then dumped to the bottom where they sit until market size—another 60 to 120 days. When the tide goes out, a complete wash takes place, eliminating predators like the blue-claw crab. The speed and volume of this withdrawal force-feeds the oysters, circulating available food and acting as a kind of steroid speeding their growth. During the two-hour lapse between tides, the oysters shut down and sit exposed to the elements. Like grapevines, oysters grow better under stress. And like vines, they are also influenced by terroir—the water and environment in which they’re grown affects flavor, size and shape of the shell. “They’re like people,” says Jonathan, returning the oysters to the bay, “who have the capacity to turn a negative into a positive.”
These days, says Smith, the oysters grow “so fast we’re running out of room.” With two peaks in the growing season, from May to June, and then again when the waters cool in September and October, the oysters can grow to market size in 8 to 10 months, though most take 14 to 18. “This is unheard of in the industry,” adds Jonathan, noting the typical cocktail oyster takes two years to grow. “Our consultant (Stan Sizzick) was taken aback. He said, I have to throw all of my learning out the window because none of it applies here.'” In two and a half years, Smith’s oyster production has grown from 500,000 to 2,000,000, and next year he hopes to produce more.
In the immediate future, Jonathan plans to expand the tray system to handle the potential volume. The three square miles of marshland, Smith was informed by Sizzick, has the capacity to farm billions of oysters. Soon, he hopes to employ solar energy and wind to circulate the water from Heady Creek. While he currently sells oysters solely to distributors and from the trailer behind his smoke shop, Jonathan eventually hopes to work with one of the wineries on the North or South Forks. With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the demand for oysters has hit the roof. And even though 95 percent of his spat mature to market, he still cannot meet the distributors’ needs. New Yorkers—Native Americans, settlers and transplants alike—have always had an insatiable appetite for oysters. “The demand far outweighs what I’m growing,” says Jonathan with a smile as we walk back to his truck. “I can’t keep up.”
Karen Ulrich is WSET certified, lives in Harlem, and writes for her blog, www.ImbibeNewYork.com , where it’s all about wine.