Ark of Taste
Long Island Oyster
Crassostrea virginica (family Ostreidae) is the delectably edible oyster native to the eastern coast of America. The shell of the oyster is thick, with a cupped bottom shell, and highly variable in shape. It grows from irregularly round to oval and usually bears exterior concentric ridges. The exterior color of the shell is dirty white to gray while the interior is bright white with a deep purple or red-brown muscle scar.
Crassostrea virginica is the oyster native to the estuaries of the Atlantic coast of the Americas, from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, Canada, along the Atlantic coast of the United States to the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, and to the West Indies and the coast of Brazil.
The range of the Crassostrea virginica encompasses many local micro-habitats, each with unique conditions, or “merroirs,” that influence taste and texture through natural algae diet, water temperature, salinity and minerality, and, if farmed, different farming techniques. So while our native, east coast American oysters are of one species, the eating qualities of the oysters from the mirrors of Long Island are distinct. There are a number of different taste profiles associated with Long Island oyster production areas: the Long Island Sound between Connecticut and Long Island and extending from New York City to Fishers Island, the interconnected bays between the North and South Forks of the island’s East End; and the bays along the island’s southern, Atlantic shore.
From the 17th century through much of the 19th century, the oysters consumed in New York City were wild and harvested in New York City’s harbor, an estuary of the Hudson River. As over harvesting picked the city’s near-by oyster beds clean and as the city’s garbage and sewage filled the harbor, oyster production for city consumption moved east to Long Island.
Long Island Oyster production is endangered and at-risk three ways.
First, local conditions affect not only taste and texture of oysters, but also the presence of oysters at all. Many local habitats are under great pressure by locally based sources of pollution including industrial, commercial, agricultural, municipal, and increasingly, residential toxic chemical and nutrient run-off and ground water pollution. Harmful algae blooms (HABs), a major threat to oyster production, result from atmospheric deposition of nitrogen from power plants, automobiles, residential and municipal run-off, and ground water seepage of nutrient rich fertilizers and human waste. Increasing, levels of atmospheric CO2, the result of fossil fuel combustion, also contribute to habitat water acidification which can affect the survival and performance of algae and bivalve larvae.
Second, warming waters, a consequence of global climate change, threaten to shrink habitat, augment acidification, and increase the incidences of diseases that kill oysters and can sicken or in rare instances even kill human oyster eaters.
Third, in addition to pollution and climate change, the availability of American oysters in their most commonly enjoyed form, raw, on the half-shell, is regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which can ban the sale of raw oysters on a region by region or national basis.
According to the Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Center, more than 350, primarily small-scale, family and co-op producers, are harvesting oysters in the Northeast. This is up from a handful of producers 25 years ago. Wild oyster fisheries continue to operate, but increasingly oyster production relies on aquaculture. Oyster culture, unlike other forms of aquaculture such as that of some finned fish, is sound environmentally and serves two purposes. First, it provides enough C. virginica to meet the demand of the oyster fishery and, second, it restores oyster reef habitats in estuaries along the eastern Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean.
Projects are underway to create oyster reefs in New York Harbor to clean the water. The reefs, created by live oyster seeding, reached the size of natural reefs in adjacent areas within one year and invertebrate species known to be associated with C. virginica reefs were found at densities equivalent to those on natural reefs within two years.