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Oysters, The New Sushi, Stage A Comeback In New York

Tucked along the North Fork coast in Greenport, Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm is part of an aquaculture renaissance on Long Island. Oyster farming is becoming big business and Widow’s Hole has helped usher in new life for the once dying industry.

“I knew this village was the oyster capital of New York, and no one was growing oysters,” said Michael Osinski, the owner of Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm and president of the Long Island Oyster Growers Association. “I was retired and had a few dollars, two kids and nothing to do so I thought I’d do something different.”

Oystering in the Great South Bay peaked in the 1970s according to Brad Peterson, an oyster expert and professor of marine science at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

In large part due to farming, the oysters are now making a comeback.

“Thousands of people used to go out into this bay every day and work, and there’s no reason it can’t be done again,” Osinski said.

Local government is helping to foster the growing oyster industry. Suffolk County is issuing leases for “aquaculture” to anyone willing to grow oysters. Last year nine new businesses were granted leases as part of the program.

“There have been significant restoration efforts on bay scallops, on hard clams, and oysters,” Peterson said. “When we look at those three shellfish, there's only one viable candidate for aquaculture and that's the oyster.”

Oysters are contributing more to Long Island than just being another food source. Oysters filter huge amounts of water and have been shown to improve water quality.

Roughly 30 to 50 gallons of water is filtered through an adult oyster each day according to Peterson. For a farmer like Mike Osinski, who has well over a million oysters in the water, over 50 million gallons of water are filtered by his oysters alone.

“That will immediately remove material from the water column,” Peterson said, “that may be living which the oyster uses to feed and grow, but it also brings in a lot of non-living particles which it brings to the sediment surface.”

“Oysters have been the new sushi for the past five years,” Osinski said. “I see hipsters in Brooklyn eating oysters for breakfast, and that means to me the demand is picking up, and we want to get the demand for oysters coming from in the home.”

“The demand has skyrocketed in the last three years,” said Davis Herron, the director of retail and restaurant at The Lobster Place Seafood Market and the Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar. “We’re selling 250 bags of oysters a week, nearly 25,000 oysters.” The Lobster Place Seafood Market is one of New York City's preeminent seafood vendors, supplying seafood to many of the top chefs and restaurants throughout the city.

Herron says that between 2014 and 2015, oyster sales were up 15%, and at his wholesale location at the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, sales are up 33%.

“Oysters have risen in popularity, and more people have been buying them and bringing them home. The market has grown considerably,” Herron said.

Through careful planning and harvesting, supply will remain steady to meet the growing demand for Long Island oysters.