For most of us NYC dwellers, oysters have been an iconic part of the city’s food system, but what do we know about their history in the waters of the Big Apple?
This article will give a snapshot into the history and long awaited return of the NYC oyster.
The oyster’s population all but disappeared from the NYC harbor during the industrial revolution, but in the past few years they’ve made a comeback in local waters and are gaining popularity with city inhabitants.
When Henry Hudson arrived in what is now New York City in 1609, there were approximately 350-miles of oyster reefs in the harbor and its surrounding waters. At the time, experts estimate that was likely more than half the oyster supply in the world. They were a major staple of Native American diets, and as a colonial city took form on the nearby island of Manhattan.
Oysters have had an international reputation far prior to the founding of the good ‘ole USA, but when they became available here in our country ritzy oyster bars began popping up and were frequented by New York’s wealthy upper classes. They were also the city’s first real street food. Poor city dwellers could purchase them on the cheap from street carts, making them a staple of many New Yorkers diets.
By the early 1900’s, the oyster populations were declining rapidly due to increased water pollution. Hundreds of gallons of sewage water was being dumped into the harbor daily, and the oysters were making people sick.
The last of the city’s oyster fisheries shut down in 1927, however there were still oyster bars throughout the city, but most imported their products from New England. As decades passed, New York’s oyster legacy was forgotten. But things are starting looking up for the city’s mollusks. In the past ten years, the oysters started reappearing in New York harbor in larger numbers. Conservationists students and civilian scientists are banding together to help rehabilitate these wonderful organisms, which oddly possess both male and female reproductive organs.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch. These oysters still are not safe to eat. The 1972 Clean Water Act has made the New York harbor sanitary enough to support the growth and development of oyster populations, but they are still toxic due to residual pollutants in the waters and still some intermittent dumping. That includes, but is clearly not limited to heavy metals, PCB’s, and even napalm. These toxins are left over from decades of industrial waste dumping in the mid-20th century.
Oyster farms and community-supported fisheries around Long Island have taken up the torch to supply local oysters to New York City mollusk consumers. Oyster farms such one on Fishers Island n the Block Island Sound and the Blue Point Oyster Company on Long Island raise oysters in hatcheries and then move them to open waters, where they are eventually harvested.
As a result, New Yorkers can keep slurping these salty treats regularly at oyster bars throughout the city. In the meantime, scientists continue to work with oysters in the New York harbor that may, one day, be safe to eat.
May 8, 2014
New York City’s Great Oyster History