Want to help save the oyster industry? Eat bigger ones, some farmers and chefs say.

“The fact that oyster farmers are suffering so much has to do with the restaurant business,” Blue Hill at Stone Barns Chef Dan Barber said.
Image: A harvester holds oysters in Brunswick, Maine, on Aug. 15, 2019.
A harvester holds oysters in Brunswick, Maine, on Aug. 15, 2019.John Ewing / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images file

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By Ben Kesslen

When restaurants closed across the country, oyster farmers Mike and Isabel Osinski lost almost all of their clients.

The couple, who live and work on the North Fork of Long Island, depend on restaurants to serve their oysters at raw bars and happy hours to break even. But stay-at-home orders killed sales, leaving the Osinskis’ oysters ready to be shucked and slurped — yet with nobody to eat them.

In April, a study conducted by Virginia Tech found that 97 percent of mollusk businesses have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 24 percent said they could get through the next three months “without external intervention,” like a government bailout.

The industry is suffering, and oyster farmers like the Osinskis face a serious problem: Many Americans don’t know how to shuck or cook oysters at home — and nobody knows when restaurants will go back to business as usual. While some farms have pivoted to selling the seafood online, Bob Rheault, the executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Associations, said even those doing it well can only recoup about 20 to 30 percent of their profits.

At-home orders help, but most Americans don’t know what to do with 50 live oysters, Rheualt said, and during a pandemic and a recession, it’s tough to justify buying a food that’s widely seen as a luxury.

The Osinskis, though, have proposed a solution to the industry’s problem: Grow oysters bigger and get them back on the kitchen table.

Large oysters, proponents say, mean the shells stay in the water longer, which allows producers to weather market instability. They also filter more water, build up artificial reefs and provide a substantial and healthy portion of protein. Isabel Osinski says oysters have huge health benefits too, pointing to their high zinc content as “a well-known and documented way to boost your immune system.”

But the problem with bigger oysters is that Americans prefer to eat small ones.

Farmers have mastered the timing of when to pull their oysters so they’re the right size and are able to grow the shells in the shape consumers prefer. But delivering the petite oysters diners want means they generally have to be harvested anywhere between eight months to two years in the U.S., depending on where they’re grown. If farmers leave their oysters in the water during the pandemic, they’ll get much bigger than consumers are generally willing to buy or consume.

At the Osinski’s farm, Widow’s Hole Oyster Company in Greenport, New York, now is the time they would be putting in seed for next year, but they aren’t sure how much to plant. “We don’t know what the future holds,” Mike Osinski said.

The Osinskis say people laugh when they suggest growing oysters bigger, but Dan Barber, the award-winning chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, thinks it’s a good idea and buys some of the Osinskis’ larger shells.

“The fact that oyster farmers are suffering so much has to do with the restaurant business,” Barber said, citing “a culture that shifted away from oysters as a bedrock to the diet, and went to cocktail oysters.”

Isabel Osinski said big oysters are a sustainable source of protein that can be included in pasta, soup or even eaten for breakfast with eggs.

But Barber said that as much as he’d love to see a return to eating large oysters, “there’s no market for eating at home.”

Americans don’t know how to shuck, and there aren’t many processing centers to package them for consumers, like there are for meat or fish. Chefs, Barber said, are somewhat to blame for our culture’s narrow view of oysters. “We never pushed for expanding the oyster territory, beyond the little cocktail chasers,” he said.

In the last two years, Cainnon Gregg had 200,000 oysters growing in Oyster Bay, Florida.Mariana Keller / NBC News

The infrastructure and the demand simply don’t exist to fulfill the Osinskis’ dream of people eating larger oysters, like they might steak or salmon, and there’s scant money to build it, unlike 150 years ago, when that infrastructure was robust.

Oysters were once so ubiquitous in the Northeast that settlers found the shells to be a navigational hazard when they reached the mouth of the Hudson River, Robert Jones, the global lead of aquaculture at the Nature Conservatory, said. New Yorkers of all classes consumed more oysters than beef in the late 19th century, and the mollusks were a staple food for many along the coasts.

Back then, oysters were often larger, sometimes five to seven inches long, and there was a whole system for categorizing them, said Christine Keiner, an oyster historian and professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Campbell Soup Company was known to buy up all the small ones for canned soup, and people often cooked larger, meatier ones at home.

But overharvesting during the 19th and 20th century flattened the reefs, Keiner said, and despite oysters’ ability to clean the waters they inhabit, widespread pollution killed off much of the wild oyster population. In addition, a few typhoid deaths from oyster consumption caused panic, and people started to turn to other forms of protein that were becoming more affordable.

Oysters moved to the raw bar, and have stayed there ever since.

Jones, of the Nature Conservancy, said trying to rebuild oysters' ecosystem to where it once was, and let some grow larger in the process, would help the industry and the environment.

“Oysters can be beyond sustainable,” he said, explaining that one small oyster can filter up 50 gallons of water a day and bigger oysters can filter even more. “It’s not just about the minimization of impact, but oysters provide ecological value.”

But Rheault, of the Shellfish Growers Association, said the key to the industry's future is teaching people how to shuck at home, not larger oysters. It’s nice larger oysters filter more water, he said, but the industry is still consumer-driven.

“In all honesty, we got into this to produce oysters. We didn’t do it for the wonderful ecosystem that oysters provide,” Rheualt said. “We have to produce what the customer wants, and the customer wants a small, deep cup, uniform tasty piece.”

The problem right now, he said, is that they’re just not buying it.