Blue Island Oyster Company, West Sayville, Long Island
Keeping it real in the South Bay Yesterday I was a guest at the Blue Island Oyster Company on Long Island along with 4 of my colleagues from Neuman's Kitchen. Prior to this visit, the only thing I knew about oysters was that I loved them and they were difficult to open, so I was very excited to see the operation and find out how they are grown and processed. Blue Island sells wild oysters from the South Bay which are harvested by freelance divers, as well as running a farming operation. They also source oysters from around the world and distribute all over the country. Blue Island is famous for their wild-caught "Naked Cowboy" oyster which they treated us to at lunch.
Docks at the oyster farm
I learned that oysters are amazingly resilient and easy to grow (once you figure out your systems). The process starts with creating a warm still bath for the oysters to spawn (the "Maternity Ward"). Warm water promotes the development of gametes which are necessary for fertilization. The other thing they need is nutrition in the form of phytoplankton which occur naturally during certain times of the year. Blue Island also grows their own supply in a super-cool, Back-to-the-Future-type lab complete with bubbling bags of colored liquids, extra added CO2, lots of PVC pipes, and homemade ingenuity. Fascinating fact: Oysters are sequential hermaphrodites, which means they can change sex repeatedly (usually once a year), but can only be one sex at any time.
The Maternity Ward
Left to right: phytoplankton tanks; our guide; the tanks outside.
Back to the story, after they release their eggs, they are gathered and transferred into protected tanks — which have a continual flow of bay water pumped through them — to grow and thrive. As they develop they are moved to different tanks, each new tank has a larger filter and screen system in them so they can be easily moved from place to place. Eventually they go into tanks outside their buildings in the bay. This worried me as they are in tanks basically in a marina with boats and fuel and who-knows-what in that water. But the oysters have an amazing filtration system so oyster beds are great for the environment! Keenan, one of the Blue Island guys — and a wonderful host, told us that they are completely clean 45 minutes after being put out in the farm which is miles offshore. There they live for about 3 years till they are large enough to harvest.
Left to right: the oyster tumbler; freshly purged steamers.
Sorting and bagging oysters
One part of the process — which I found fascinating — was when they are about 1/2 inch in diameter they are put into a tumbling machine which rolls then thus breaking off the thin new outer growth on the edge of their shells. This causes the shell to grow thick and more bowl shaped instead of long and flat thus creating a deeper bowl for the oyster to form. Besides the tumbling process, there's quite a bit of work done to make the oyster more attractive, including power washing, scrubbing, sorting, and bagging. They also sell clams (steamers) which they purge in a fresh water tank system, (something I had never seen before and which they described as something nobody else does) so you don't have to deal with they annoying sand crunching in your mouth. Blue Island Oyster Farm is an example of people working with nature in a sustainable way, employing local people, and strengthening the local economy. A delicious win-win-win for all involved. Thanks for a great day!