Oyster tours along Long Island's Peconic Bay
David Berson blew a powerful blast through his conch shell and the Glory glided out of its berth at Preston's Wharf in Greenport.
The passengers aboard the 30-foot solar-powered launch were embarking on the first leg of Greenport's Harbor Oys-Tour, an afternoon celebrating local oysters. The hourlong tour of Peconic Bay would be followed by a lesson in oyster shucking at nearby Little Creek Oyster Market, but for now, all eyes were on Captain Dave.
Berson, who has run Glory Going Green boat tours since 1999, is straight out of central casting. With his nut-brown face, worn captain's hat, trim beard, bandanna and pipe, he looks like a hand-carved ship's captain. Slightly less Melvillian: a Bronx accent.
His gaze alternating between his audience and oncoming boat traffic, Berson conjured up a picture of Peconic Bay in its oyster-producing heyday. "Greenport built itself on boats, fishing and oysters," he said. "The shore was lined with oyster factories, where some oysters would be shucked and canned, others would be packed live into barrels to be sold at the Fulton Fish Market in New York."
In the early 20th century, he said, the bay produced more than 20 million pounds of oyster meat a year. But the industry was decimated by a combination of unsustainable fishing practices, environmental changes and a 1938 hurricane that covered the oyster beds with silt. By the late 1960s, production had all but ceased.
Oysters strike back
The loss of Peconic Bay's oyster beds hurt more than the oyster industry. "Oysters are filter feeders," Berson explained. "One oyster filters two gallons of water per hour. More oysters mean a cleaner bay and a cleaner bay means more oysters."
Peconic Bay's oyster industry has enjoyed a resurgence in the past 15 years. In 2001, the Cornell Cooperative Extension launched SPAT (Southold Project in Aquaculture Training), and local oyster farmers such as Ed Jurczenia (Pipes Cove Oysters), Reg Tuthill (Oysterponds oysters), Mike Osinski (Widow's Hole Oyster Farm) and Karen Rivara (Peconic Pearls) dove back in, hoping to reverse the course of oyster history. According to the U.S. Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, in 2013 Peconic Bay oysters brought in about $2 million.
Berson steered west toward Southold and pointed to the buoys that mark the oyster cages belonging to Pipes Cove, one of the bay's biggest producers. Bayman Gary Detrick was maneuvering a simple oyster skiff equipped with a davit (mechanized arm) that can be swiveled and dropped into the bay to haul up the oyster cages suspended 10 to 20 feet underwater.
"People think raising oysters is a no-brainer, but it's very labor intensive," said Berson. Baymen must periodically pull up the oysters, take them out of the cages and tumble them in a revolving bin to keep them free of other shellfish -- mussels, slipper shells -- that adhere to the shells before submerging them again.
Berson gestured beyond Southold's Great Hog Neck to Little Creek's oyster farm. Then he turned Glory back toward Greenport. Off the port side, he pointed out the Greenport inlet, where Widow's Hole's oysters are raised.
Taste of the Peconic Bay
All Long Island oysters, in fact all East Coast oysters, he said, are the same species, Crassostrea virginica. The difference in their taste and appearance is due to the conditions in which they were grown. "The Peconic water is very saline," Berson said. "That gives our oysters their character. Blue Points, from the Great South Bay, just don't have the bite."
Back on shore, Berson led everyone over to Little Creek Oyster Market. Long Island's first U-shuck shack was opened in July by Ian Wile and Rosalie Rung, who also own Little Creek Oyster Farm. Through the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program, Wile and Rung were able to lease 10 underwater acres, and, in spring 2013, they seeded their first oysters.
Housed in a restored bait and tackle store on the industrial shoreline between Claudio's and Mitchell Park, the shop sells a mix of fishing gear and lifestyle trinkets -- lures, frozen bait, greeting cards, rain ponchos, artisanal condiments -- but the main event is shucking oysters at the two picnic tables set out on the gravel facing the water.
With his retro-nerd horn-rimmed glasses and Beaver Cleaver haircut, Wile, a filmmaker who produces shows such as "Guy's Big Bite" for Food Network, is as urbane as Berson is seafaring. But since moving to Greenport a year ago, he is every bit as bullish on local oysters.
His shack stocks not only Little Creeks but any local oyster he can get his hand on. "Oysters are having a renaissance," he said, "and we want the North Fork to be a part of it."
OYSTERS: A LESSON IN HOW TO OPEN THEM
Ian Wile, co-owner of Little Creek Oyster Farm and Market in Greenport, realized soon after starting the company that teaching civilians to shuck their own oysters could potentially boost his customer base.
"People eat oysters at restaurants," he said, "but the barrier to eating them at home is that no one wants to shuck. Or there are people who want to shuck, but they are terrified to shuck."
Wile delivered buckets of oysters to the disembarked passengers from the Harbor Oys-Tour and gave each one a kit containing a heavy glove and a selection of oyster knives. He stood at the head of the picnic table and demonstrated proper shucking technique: Work the knife into the little hinge at the base of the oyster, feeling around for the muscle that holds the shell shut. When the tip of the knife finds the muscle, push through it, the oyster relaxes its grip and, by twisting the knife, you can easily pry it open.
Soon the crew was shucking away. Some folks stood up to get more leverage, others took advantage of a little wooden contraption that holds the oyster steady (so your hand doesn't have to). One brave soul removed his glove, preferring to really feel the oyster. When someone would get stuck, Wile advised trying a different knife. "It's never your fault," he said, "always the knife's."
"It was easier than I thought it would be," remarked Peter Logrieco of Port Washington, round about his eighth oyster. "I could certainly see doing this at home."
Wile beamed. Mission accomplished.