Too Much of a Good Thing

I contribute positively to the environment, working to improve natural habitat with hopes that over time, conditions will improve for everyone. I watch what I eat and my diet consists almost entirely of vegetarian elements, with the only exception a sneaky zooplankton that makes its way inside my mouth by chance every now and then. I, dear readers, am an oyster.

As oyster farmers, we try to feed our babies well by ensuring they have a steady flow of clean, phytoplankton-laden water available, providing ample nutrition and ensuring quick growth to market size. If our oysters don’t get the food they need, they will grow more slowly, dragging out the precious months necessary to leave their subsea homes and venture onto a cool bed of cracked ice near your glass of rosé.

Our beloved namesake, Robins Island, as viewed from the north.

So if it’s all about the nüts (as in nutrients), the more plankton the better, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In a well-functioning ecosystem, phytoplankton serve themselves up as a vital part of the food chain for animals large (whales) and small (oysters). Over time, however, human activities ranging from flushing the toilet to industrial farming to playing a round of golf have resulted in unnaturally high waterborne nitrogen levels in some estuaries. Since phytoplankton require nitrogen to photosynthesize and reproduce, more nitrogen equals more plankton under certain conditions.

Nitrogen, in many forms, is essential to our daily lives. Nitrate (NO3-) fertilizer plays a huge (too huge) role in modern farming, nitroglycerin (NG) is used medically as a vasodilator, and nitrous oxide (N20) helps Vin Diesel win races in The Fast and Furious. At normal levels, nitrogen in seawater spurs healthy aquatic plant and algae growth.

However, if nitrogen inputs increase beyond stable levels, we tend to see an explosion of microscopic flora – some of the very same phytoplankton that in the right amounts are essential to shellfish health. Generally speaking, explosive growth of algae and phytoplankton can lead to undesirable ecological outcomes including eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, fish kills, disappearance of seagrass, and loss of marsh habitats

These nutrient loading problems plague portions of mighty estuaries seasonally including the Chesapeake, Long Island Sound, and Long Island’s Great South Bay.

West Robins Oyster Company is located just to the West of Robins Island, in the Great Peconic Bay, a body of water that The Nature Conservancy calls one of the “last great places in the Western Hemisphere,” and we’d have to agree. Our particular plot of water experiences two thorough tidal flushes daily and is certified by the State of New York as a clean and healthy place to grow shellfish.

That said, West Robins stands with groups like TNC, the Peconic Estuary Program and the Peconic Baykeeper in their efforts to measure, analyze and improve water quality over time in the Bay.

A vital precondition of protecting and improving the water quality of the Peconic Bay is an understanding of the local sources of nutrient loading. This 2014 paper takes a high resolution look at three factors contributing to nitrogen loading in the Peconic Estuary including wastewater treatment, fertilizer use, and atmospheric deposition. One of the tricks in conducting such an analysis is determining the spatial extent to which the study should look for nitrogen inputs (check out the perimeter they settled on below).

Using groundwater elevation maps, researchers constructed this Peconic Estuary groundwater contribution map.  All surface and subterranean liquids within the yellow perimeter will take a downhill path toward the Peconic Bay, whereas liquids beyond this perimeter will flow to either the South Shore or Long Island Sound to the north.

The study ultimately determined that 49.6% of the total nitrogen load came from wastewater inputs, which included groundwater leaching from household septic tanks and cesspools (43.0%) and wastewater treatment plants (6.6%).  Next, 26.4% of the nitrogen load could be explained by fertilizers from agriculture, lawns and golf courses. Finally, atmospheric deposition (nitrogen making its way into the estuary via natural processes) accounted for 24.0% of nitrogen loading.

In the map below, pie charts show the specific breakdown of nitrogen inputs at a sub-watershed scale, giving us an intriguing high-resolution picture of how nitrogen loading is distributed across the East End.  Most of the nitrogen load originating from the North Fork comes from fertilizer use, as we’d expect from the large number of vineyards and farms. Nitrogen load originating from the more densely populated South Fork mostly comes from residential septic systems.

Agriculture is responsible for most NoFo nitrogen load, while septics rule the Hamptons. Source: The Nature Conservancy.

Reducing seasonal nitrogen load over time is a complex, multi-faceted dance of prevention and mitigation. The low-hanging fruit of prevention includes tasks addressing point sources such as the Riverhead Treatment Plant upgrades completed in September 2016. Longer term prevention initiatives include smarter agricultural fertilizer application practices and septic system upgrades.

On the mitigation front, time and tidal flushing probably give us the most bang for the buck. However, as oyster farmers, we would be remiss not to mention the ecosystem services we provide. Oysters do their small part to combat excess nutrient load by converting some nutrients to animal and shell mass and through denitrification that releases harmless nitrogen gas to reenter the atmosphere.

At the intersection of academia and the oyster biz, folks are trying to determine to what extent oysters may be an environmental (and policy) tool to rid East Coast estuaries of excess nutrients and restore natural balance. Initial takeaways are that oyster impacts are positive but the magnitude of restorative effects should be measured against the nutrient inputs.

While oyster aquaculture isn’t a panacea for water quality woes, it’s wildly beneficial to the health of the Peconic Bay Estuary and therefore something we can all feel good about in conjunction with other efforts of informed environmentalism.

When you eat an oyster from West Robins, it’s safe to say you just left the Great Peconic Bay a little better than you found it, so eat up & enjoy. We’re proud of you for the decision you made.

Fun While it Lasted!

Nothing seems more frustrating than repeatedly making the same mistake. How many times in a row can I hit my head on the same low hanging branch, forget the difference between the 1/2/3 above 96th Street or break the wine cork in half before complete insanity sets in?

Unfortunately we as humans have a fairly poor track record of learning from our mistakes, especially when it comes to renewable resource extraction or consumption. While we don’t universally get it wrong, we seem slow to learn sometimes.

When Henry Hudson arrived in what’s now his eponymous River in 1609 on an 85-foot wooden carrack with a scraggly crew on deck, the locals (Lenape at the time) dubbed the newcomers a name translated as ‘Salty People’ for their oceanic method of arrival. The Lenape and their predecessors ate oysters as early as 6,950 B.C. in the Hudson Watershed and according to historical records quickly turned the newcomers onto the bodacious New York beds.

Canal and Broadway, the site of one of New York's first oyster middens. You better know what a midden is by now.

Canal and Broadway, the site of one of New York's first oyster middens. You better know what a midden is by now.

By some estimates, those original New York wild oyster beds covered 350 square miles of the Harbor watershed including the Hudson and East Rivers, Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, the Bronx and beyond. While Native peoples certainly feasted on ‘sters, low population densities ensured the macro sustainability of any harvesting.

Fast forward almost exactly 200 years from Henry Hudson’s 1609 landing and oystermen working some of New York’s most productive beds offshore of Staten Island started coming up empty.

Singing the Tong Song, tonging for oysters on Staten Island's once bodacious beds. Circa when the natural beds were basically literally exhausted.

Singing the Tong Song, tonging for oysters on Staten Island's once bodacious beds. Circa when the natural beds were basically literally exhausted.

Let’s do some math supporting stylized facts to get from Point A (abundance) to Point B (exhaustion). I promise I’ll do it all for you and give you all the answers. I'll make the sausage, you just grill. Making some assumptions, I’ll ballpark the amount of native oysters at around 80 billion.

Seems like a bunch, right?

New York’s population increased 4.0% annually during the 100 years from 1790 to 1890 from about 50,000 to roughly 2.5 million. Those are the first 100 years for which we have official Decennial Census Data.

Fitting an exponential function to this population data, we can come up with a way to estimate New York’s population growth, backward and forward. Not perfect, but work with me here.

Next, remember that back then people ate far more oysters – let’s assume 400 annually per capita, which is within anecdotal historical estimates and about an oyster per day. If we hold that consumption number constant, we can multiply it by our population function to get an estimate of annual consumption for any year we choose.

In the 211 years from 1609 to 1820, for example, we as New Yorkers might have eaten around 2.5 billion oysters, or over 3% of our 350 square miles. By 1890, we might have extracted 30 billion, or almost 40% of our 350 square miles if everything we were eating were local. Keep in mind that lots of the 350 square miles was probably too far away from population centers in Southern Manhattan to even be commercially viable in the first place in an era of rowing and sailing.

First we fit an exponential function to population data, then we multiply by a presumed constant oyster consumption, then we integrate that historical New York oyster consumption function over a time interval to proxy for local extraction. Muahaha!

First we fit an exponential function to population data, then we multiply by a presumed constant oyster consumption, then we integrate that historical New York oyster consumption function over a time interval to proxy for local extraction. Muahaha!

This back-of-the-envelope account doesn’t include potential imports or the huge volume of oyster exports, and it’s hard to know how we affected natural reproduction or destroyed habitat, but the data are suggestive. Simultaneously with intense extraction, we filled in estuaries and other productive oyster habitat to make more land, thereby reducing natural oyster habitat and eliminating established, reproducing populations for the sake of development. Gotta have that true one bedroom.

Initial outline of Manhattan in green shows the infilling of its naturally fragmented shoreline

Initial outline of Manhattan in green shows the infilling of its naturally fragmented shoreline

The crazy thing is that the exploitation up to 1820 or so that wiped out the Staten Island beds wasn’t the byproduct of heavy equipment belching fossil fuels and digging up miles of oysters at a time with mechanization, but rather tens of thousands of individuals and small-scale commercial oystermen catching oysters in relatively small numbers with manual equipment for local markets. Death by a thousand cuts, indeed!

Let me see that toooong -- Oyster Tongs used to harvest oysters in 10-12 feet of water after the ones sitting on the beach were chomped.

Let me see that toooong -- Oyster Tongs used to harvest oysters in 10-12 feet of water after the ones sitting on the beach were chomped.

What came next? The writing was on the wall that increased harvest pressure and development spelled bad f*n news for the natural beds. Oystermen looked abroad to countries with industrial oyster farming efforts like France to learn methods with which they would try to rescue the ailing New York beds.

Waiting in the wings: a generation of hard-hitting capitalists bracing themselves for a messy battle to rule an industry they were about to invent: oyster farming, not catching, in New York Harbor. Floating mahogany offices, astounding wealth and hostile oyster bed takeovers are on deck for our next historical post. This is business.

 

It's in the Bag

We want to start off by apologizing to the countless fans we’ve let down as of late.  We originally intended to update this blog on a weekly basis. Clearly we weren’t able to adhere to the schedule and believe us, we tossed and turned every night thinking about it.  So, what have we been up to if not creating awesome content on westrobins.com?

Since mid-October, West Robins Oyster Co. has been furiously preparing to take-on and deploy its very first crop of oyster seed.  As of today, the Company has its oysters in overwintering position at the bottom of the Peconic Bay, well below the reach of any ice that may form this impending winter.  After a long winter snooze and a fruitful, fast-paced early growing season, these WROC oysters will be yours in Summer ’17, on the East End and otherwise.  For nearly three weeks, West Robins’ two dedicated employees worked vehemently to ensure the safe and smooth reception of their very first seed order.  We’d like to treat you to an inside look at the process.

Part 1: A Gear Recipe

Before oyster delivery comes gear fabrication. To organize and maintain oysters in standardized counts, West Robins, like most oyster farms, first assembles ‘oyster bags.’ A standard across the industry, oyster bags (pictured below) are vessels for holding specific numbers of oysters. We in the business refer to these specific numbers as stocking densities.  Pack oysters too closely together and they begin to compete for nutrients in the passing water, slowing growth. Spreading oysters too thinly risks underutilizing valuable dollars spent on gear. Oyster bags have a fixed, predictable shape, meaning bag volume remains constant whether it holds two hundred or two thousand oysters.  Very useful when planning the configuration of growing gear!

We purchased our bags from a vendor in Rhode Island after they had a brief layover from their origin in France, where the industry is much more advanced than in the United States. The bags ship flat; transforming them from flattened sheets of plastic into square, rigid boxes is truly an exercise in adult-ified arts and crafts. Once fully assembled, the standard oyster bag appears as a rectangle 3 inches deep, 33 inches long, and 17inches wide. While our exact bag creation methods are proprietary, we can divulge a simplified recipe for your consideration this holiday season:

Combine one part virgin oyster bag, ten parts stainless steel hog rings, two parts scuffed and blistered hands, and three parts stainless steel “diaper pins.”  Begin mixing, adding TV and music of choice and coffee as needed.  After about eight minutes, set aside complete bag, apply duct tape to fingers where necessary, and repeat process a couple hundred more times until completion or physical exhaustion. 

Please enjoy this time-lapse of an infinitesimal segment of the process. We just ask that if you apply to work with us in the future you’re on board with the uniform of white T-shirts and jeans.

 

Step 2: Welcoming our Babies

Thursday, November 10th, 2016 marks the fateful day on which West Robins received its first seed order.  In anticipation of receiving the order, we set up our supplies at a local working waterfront, where we made a few new friends with the promise of future oysters.

The Setup

Will tries to hide his silly hat

Over the course of four hours, we gently corralled the oysters into their cozy new oyster bag accommodations.  At the suggestion of a semi-known band we’d both just so happened to grow up listening to, we got by with a little help from our friends -- East Hampton resident James, excited by the idea of our farm, provided his services free of charge that day and eased our timeline a bit. However, with the sun slated for a 4:35pm set, we left the oysters out of the water overnight to prep for a full day of deployment.  When removed from the water, oysters of any age will use their powerful adductor muscle to clamp shut, trapping whatever water (known as ‘liquor’) happens to be inside their shells.  We think of this as the inverse of a human drawing a deep breath before diving into the ocean.  Difference is, in cool-enough temperatures these tough SOBs can last days out of the water, not minutes.  But what do you expect; they’re hard-shelled and tough, we’re squishy and soft.

Step 3: Deployment

We will save the deployment saga for another day and another recipe. In the meantime, please enjoy these photographs from out on the water, and take comfort in the fact that our babies are safely stored on the West Robins Oyster Company underwater property.

Somewhere between man and fish

If you ask nicely, they may even eke out some late season growth before mailing it in to wake up next April.  We’ll toast to that.

 

Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

This week, we stay in the present as we explain the West Robins oysters’ family tree. We find this topic particularly relevant as we plant our first 'crop' of oysters, which we endeavor to introduce to your willing gullets starting in Summer ‘17. In explaining the birth of a cultivated oyster, we address a commonly posed question: “How do you catch your oysters?”

While there’s no such thing as a stupid question, we will laugh if you ask us that. We don’t catch oysters, at least not for now. Oysters in the wild procreate irregularly year over year -- some years will have fantastic and productive spawns (called ‘sets’) while in other years water temperatures stay unseasonably low, weather patterns are funky, or pesky algae blooms crop up, collectively inducing oysters to keep it in their pants. These factors can contribute to limited waves of new oyster babies. Biologists refer to this up and down spawning pattern as ‘recruitment’ and populations that are not self-sustaining as ‘recruitment-limited.’

In areas with low shellfish densities, including most (beginning) farms, oyster populations are recruitment-limited, causing farmers like us to turn to oyster ‘hatcheries,’ which grow oyster ‘seed,’ or small oysters. Purchasing baby oysters allows us to plan our projected output by buying seed in amounts proportionate to what we will harvest each year. As a farmer, this makes keeping up with oyster demand easier and more predictable -- imagine telling chefs at some of our country’s finest restaurants in New York that they can’t serve our oysters for a year because the mood wasn’t right last July!

Turning our attention to the seed source, roughly 30 oyster hatcheries produce seed on the East Coast of the United States and five produce seed on the West Coast. Not all of those hatcheries produce seed at scale or for commercial purposes.

Two of the most notable commercial hatcheries on the East Coast include those of the Mook Sea Farm in Maine and the Fishers Island Oyster Farm in New York.

Why single out Mook and Fishers, other than their mystique and isolation? For starters, both are industry leaders when it comes to breeding both beautiful and biologically robust oysters. Growers whisper their names and buy them drinks. Both operations have 30+ years of hatchery experience and produce seed that flies off the shelves (tanks) at the start of every growing season. Also, Will was born 4 miles from the Mook Seafarm global HQ and Walker worked on the Fishers Island Oyster Farm at the start of his oyster career.

Most hatcheries follow the same basic principles. Hatchery operators seek to produce an oyster as biologically robust as it is visually appealing and delicious, all the while utilizing the same natural selective breeding technologies available thousands of years ago. 

Bill Mook showing off his hatchery on the banks of the Damariscotta (via Portland Press Herald).

The process begins with choosing a broodstock.  

Broodstock consists of the oysters that sat at the cool table in high school and didn’t learn anything new in sexual education classes. They’re fast growing, pretty, resilient, and they know it. Kidding aside, a good broodstock choice exhibits above-average growth rates, disease resistance, and that deep shell cup chefs yearn for, shuckers love and menus brag about.  

With broodstock selected, hatcheries coax the males and females to start spraying sperm and eggs into the water by manipulating water temperature and nutrient concentration. Quite a few hatchery gurus have special spawning playlists on their iPods (wish we were kidding). Ultimately, these skilled hatchery lab-rats collect hundreds of millions of floating oyster larvae that result from the spawn. Hatcheries then coddle the new larvae by providing an ample supply of oyster baby formula consisting of lab-grown algae.

Leeeetle, tiny babies.

Leeeetle, tiny babies.

Some hatcheries then part ways and sell their tiny oyster larvae, while others have affiliated nursery operations to hang onto their seed for a little while as it grows, letting them sell later at higher prices and sizes up to about an inch in length.

Farms (like West Robins Oyster Company) line up at hatchery doors to submit seed orders for a given year. Different farms have unique strategies regarding the number and size of seed they purchase in order to customize the process of nurturing those angsty adolescents into full bodied beauties for your palate. Generally speaking, the smaller the seed, the longer a farm needs to grow oysters to market size, but the more money the farm saves on the initial purchase of baby oysters.

For our first growing season, we are proud to partner with some of the best players in the hatchery business. We happily support their operations with our orders because we benefit from the domain expertise these industry pioneers have developed over the last 30 years. They live, breathe and speak everything ‘oyster’.

In the coming weeks, we will provide you with a deeper peek at the introduction of baby oysters to our farm, something that hasn’t happened for over 75 years.

West Robins' baby oysters, coming to a mouth near yours Summer '17.

West Robins' baby oysters, coming to a mouth near yours Summer '17.

Next week, though, we’ll jump back and cover the action of the first European analysis of New York’s legendary oyster beds. To quote Mark Twain via Mulberry Sellers, “there’s gold in them thar hills!”

High on the Hog

Walker here.

This week we’re snapping back to our current reality; how do you counter the gravity of Month 7 of waiting for federal oyster culture permits?  Take a trip to San Francisco, mix work and play, hit the Mission, devour burritos, and aim north to Marin County and West Coast Oyster Land.

When you cross the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, breathtaking views of rolling hills dotted with striking modern homes immediately greet you.  However, I’d recommend you rest those eyes a bit—the real treasure of Marin County starts on CA-1 North, another hour beyond the Bridge.

Minutes after turning onto Route 1, the southern tip of Tomales Bay materializes out of seemingly nowhere.  The aquamarine Bay to my left, paired with bucolic pastureland to my right makes for spectacular vistas.  My eyes feast, leaving my empty stomach painfully self-aware.  Not for long.

An hour and forty-five minutes after leaving San Francisco, I pull into an oyster shell lot at the venerable Hog Island Oyster Company.  The familiar crunch of shell underfoot takes me right back to my days working on the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, as does the sight of neon orange Grundéns.  Within minutes I’m shaking hands with John Finger, CEO of Hog Island, as well as his son Zane, one of the farm managers.  John has other matters to attend to, so he ushers his dog into his Subaru and drives away.  A CEO driving a Subaru?  Tremendous.

For the next hour and a half, Zane and his rescue mutt Tuna show me every nook and cranny of this world-famous oyster growing operation.  Hog Island produces over four million oysters per year from their two growing sites in Tomales Bay.  They grow Crassostrea gigas, known colloquially as the Pacific or Japanese oyster.  In addition to sharing a genus with the Eastern oyster, these little guys look strikingly similar.  However, there are notable differences to be picked out by the observant connoisseur.  Pacific oysters are known for their creamy texture and sweet taste, whereas Eastern oysters are chewier and saltier.  Which you prefer is entirely up to your own predilections.

Hog Island begins their process, like most growers, by securing the year’s seed, either from their in-house hatchery or from other West Coast hatcheries.  Procuring seed on the West Coast is getting harder due to climate change.

When their seed reaches a size of roughly ¾”, workers transfer the teenage oysters to intertidal rack-and-bag systems for final grow-out.  For the remainder of their lives, Hog Island oysters are exposed to the elements twice per day as the tide goes in and out.  This exposure to air and the sun’s ultraviolet rays reduces biofouling—think algae and barnacle growth—while promoting the formation of a gorgeous, deep-cupped shell.  The growing method speaks for itself when you look at Hog Island oyster shells post-culinary enjoyment.  These deep-cupped, iridescent beauties get us torqued. 

While growing methods are something Will and I find fascinating, the real magic of Hog Island happens at their oyster bar.  Those fortunate enough to reserve a picnic table savor views of beautiful Tomales Bay dueling with the here-and-now of sweaty, Grundén-wearing workers packing oysters.  If you find this concept to be “too rustic,” hit the back button a few times.

Hog Island’s signature oyster, the Sweetwater, is a gustatory delight.

I start to draw comparisons of my own between Pacific and Eastern oysters once the farm tour concludes.  I don’t have a reservation but after Zane explained to the wait staff that I’m a fellow farmer, I’m practically dragged to a table.  In less than five minutes, I have a plate of 24 Sweetwaters, a ‘Marooned on Hog Island’ oyster stout, and six bourbon chipotle butter BBQ’ed oysters sitting in front of me.  This feast does not last more than 15 beautiful, savory minutes.  While I eat, the raw bar staff brings me complimentary goodies: a fresh trout dish and a glass of champagne.  Hog Heaven. 

They don’t need to treat this East Ender with such hospitality, but I feel so at home. 

My Hog Island trip was too short, but I came away with more than a handful of new ideas to integrate into our vision of the West Robins Oyster Company Experience.  Infinite thanks to our new friends at the Hog Island Oyster Company.  I’ll be back, and that’s a promise. 

On your next visit to the Bay Area, I urge you to make the trip up to the Hog Island farm.  And if you’re strapped for time but want to enjoy Sweetwaters within City limits, you can join the hungry throngs at Hog Island’s beautiful Ferry Building oyster bar.