Striving for a healthier bay
A great harvest provided by Blue Island Oyster Company.

Photo provided by Blue Island Oyster Company

Striving for a healthier bay

Story By: RICK CHALIFOUX
7/28/2016


ISLIP TOWN—In the midst of widespread concerns about the future health of the Great South Bay and concentrated efforts to revive a once dominant shellfish industry, the sustained success of the West Sayville-based Blue Island Oyster Company has helped offer glimpses of a brighter future for both the region and the industry.

The company was founded in 1995 by Sayville-native Chris Quartuccio. After graduating from Sayville High School, Quartuccio went to college and moved into Manhattan. At the age of 30, however, he moved back to Sayville with the idea of getting involved in the seafood industry.

“I’d seen the ups and downs of the industry here on Long Island over the years,” said Quartuccio, who first started clamming on the Great South Bay at the age of 12. “The only thing I knew [at the time] was digging clams, so I would drive back and forth from Long Island to Manhattan and sell them to chefs.”

Quartuccio also began scuba diving for natural oysters in the Long Island Sound, and soon began developing a relationship with some of the city’s top chefs. Since then, the company has grown substantially to the point where it is now recognized as the No. 1 oyster and clam distributor in the New York region. Recently, Blue Island has expanded its operations, and its products can now be found on restaurant menus in Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Miami. They also import from countries around the world, including Mexico, Canada and New Zealand. Just last year, Blue Island opened its first oyster bar in Denver, Colo., which includes a large 20-foot map of Long Island and the Great South Bay.

Meanwhile, the public can visit the Blue Island Oyster Farm located at Captree State Park near the Fire Island inlet. The company offers weekend kayak tours around the facility – which opened in 2005 – throughout the season.

“Visitors can learn about the history, biology and ecology of oysters while surrounded by the native wildlife and scenery,” said Quartuccio. “They also learn how to shuck their own oysters. People who come are blown away.”

In an industry that once dominated the region in the late 19th through early 20th century and has struggled immensely since the latter half of the 20th century, Quartuccio noted that the strategic location of its farm has been a major factor in the company’s success. The strong current, abundance of algae and phytoplankton, and select minerals in the bay create a unique, ideal environment for the oysters to thrive. In addition, the practice of selling oysters directly to restaurants – as opposed to wholesales – has given Blue Island a competitive edge.

“For decades, different businesses tried to reestablish the oyster industry in the Great South Bay,” said Quartuccio, who noted that Blue Island also helps provide other LI farmers with seeds to support the local industry. “The reason they failed is because they were growing farther east. There’s not enough water exchange in the middle of the bay to produce oysters – you really need to be as close to the inlet as you can get.”

Meanwhile, as the demand for oysters continues to grow around the country, Blue Island has focused its efforts on helping to preserve the overall health of the Great South Bay.

“As farmers, we really needed to present to the public in some way how we’re being affected by excessive use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides,” said Quartuccio, who noted that much of the pollution and harmful brown tides in the bay are due to nitrogen from both septic tanks and lawn fertilizer running off into the waters. “These fertilizers and chemicals are causing algae blooms, which change the makeup of the bay and make it not suitable for marine life anymore.”

To help raise awareness of these growing issues, Blue Island is promoting environmentally conscious lawn practices through Operation Blue Earth – which seeks to educate the public about the connection between land and water health.

Looking ahead, Quartuccio hopes to continue Blue Island’s success while helping to raise awareness to create a healthier, more sustainable bay that allows for the long-awaited return of the thriving Long Island oyster industry. Meanwhile, multiple fundraisers and events are planned in the near future to continue to spread the word about simple steps residents can take to improve the health of our precious waterways.

“Operation Blue Earth asks citizens along the South Shore to stop using harmful fertilizers on their lawns,” said Quartuccio. “We work every day to raise awareness and let the public know. It’s a grassroots movement, and so far we’ve gotten a really good response.”

For further information about the Blue Island Oyster Company, visit www.blueislandoyster.com.

To learn more about Operation Blue Earth, visit https://www.facebook.com/Operation-Blue-Earth-695979103834519.