Long Island oyster farming program expanding

Oyster farmers on Long Island are getting some extra space to harvest this year. A program by the Town of Islip is expanding, which could be a win-win for the economy and the environment.

"The thing about this season is they grow really fast right now so instead of just harvesting, culling your oysters, harvesting and selling, now you have to manage your crop," oyster farmer Sixto Portilla said. "We purchase all our seeds, put them in little bags until they grow up and they grow like popcorn, starting right around now until July, they just take off, they get so big so you're constantly moving them into different bags just to thin them out."

Portilla is one of 26 clam and oyster farmers leasing acres of water in the Great South Bay. It's part of the Town of Islip's Bay Bottom Licensing Program, which has already leased out 125 acres of bay water for oyster harvesting.

Phase 3 is set to begin soon, where the number of acres available for lease will expand dramatically to nearly 1,600. Martin Byrnes, the town's waterways management supervisor, started the leasing program in 2012.

"We are trying to bring back the shellfish population here in Islip, the Blue Point oysters are famous from the Great South Bay," Byrnes said. "It was over-harvested back in the early 1930s. A hurricane in 1938 came through and decimated the remaining population."

One adult oyster can filter out about 50 gallons of water per day, leading to a decrease in algae and brown tides. So harvesting here will help the environment as well as the economy because these farmers sell to local restaurants and businesses.

"I'd like to think that oyster establishments will multiply, a lot of places just don't sell oysters, but the demand is getting so high," Portilla said. "I hope that demand really influences what's available out there."

Phase 3 is set to begin in just a few weeks while the town waits for a final review from the state. There is room for about 130 more oyster farmers. Each lease will last for 10 years. Farmers can apply via the Town of Islip website.