What does it take to clean up Long Island’s bays?
One way is Paul McCormick’s commercial oyster farm, part of his Great Gun Shellfish Company named after Great Gun Beach, which lies directly south of the farm along the Fire Island National Seashore. His oysters currently filter 5 million gallons of water a day in Moriches Bay, eating the microalgae. Oysters act as a natural water filtration system to help keep algae blooms in check. Oysters are good for the environment. Aquaculture is good for the environment.
The ride on Mr. McCormick’s boat certainly got the cobwebs out, briskly bouncing along on Moriches Bay two miles away to visit his commercial oyster farm. He got our photographer into chest high waders to be able walk in the water at low tide to see the oyster farm. But being so far from shore it gave the appearance of the two men walking on the water. The oysters are grown in floating black vexar mesh bags. “The bags can be designed and built in a variety of ways,” Mr. McCormick said. “I employ a ‘suitcase’-style design that fully exposes one side of the bag to the sun in order to keep the surface of the bag clean. The floating design of the farm places the oysters at the top of the water column where the oysters’ food is at its highest concentration.” His floating oyster farm offers ease of access with a much less labor. He does have two part-time workers.
Currently, he has around 100,000 oysters and could expand to 300,000—filtering 15 million gallons of water daily at maximum capacity. He purchases high-quality oyster seed from Aeros Cultured Oyster Company in Southold, run by Karen Rivara. She continually selects and refines the genetic line, or brood stock, that produces very healthy and fast-growing oysters, enabling Mr. McCormick to get his oysters to market in sometimes nine months instead of the usual 12 to 18 months. Another factor is that the farm’s proximity to Moriches Inlet provides a constant flow of water abundantly rich in plankton and algae for the oysters to feast on.
Mr. McCormick consulted with Kim Tetrault, who encourages the public to get involved in raising shellfish while giving back to local waters through the SPAT program, Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training, under the aegis of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. He met with Mr. Tetrault, whose experience and positive mindset as well as his enthusiasm rubbed off on Mr. McCormick.
He also consulted with Gregg Rivara, an aquaculture specialist for 30 years at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Mr. Rivara advised Mr. McCormick how many seed oysters to buy to get started, what anchoring system to use, an awareness of potential site limitations, and also advice filling out the permit applications that are very specific. “I helped him be successful, and Paul McCormick is on his way,” Mr. Rivara said.
“Shellfish cultivation has been a part of Suffolk County since the late 1800s,” he said. “It is our job to help those practicing aquaculture today solve problems and make ‘water farming’ more profitable financially as well as environmentally.”
Mr. McCormick sells 15,000 to 20,000 oysters a month on the 3.67 acres that he leases from the Town of Brookhaven. The local government leadership is farmer friendly but oyster farms are well regulated on Long Island where the waters are subject to inspection and are certified by New York State.
Mr. McCormick sells wholesale to two companies: Blue Island in West Sayville and Island Creek in Massachusetts. They, in turn, distribute his oysters all over the country to well respected restaurants in New York City such as Michael’s, Patroon, Marea, Smith and Wollensky, Atlantic Grill, Momofuku Ma Peche, and Blue Water Grill, to mention just a few. His oysters are to be found in restaurants on Long Island, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Locally, in East Moriches, Mr. McCormick sells to Silly Lilly, a fishing station and marina built in 1932. Silly Lilly has a taco truck on Friday nights in summer that features Mr. McCormick’s oysters.
Mr. McCormick always had a deep connection to the water. He worked alone as a full-time clammer in South Oyster Bay off Massapequa for a number of years in the 1990s. “I had the good fortune of learning from an older generation of baymen, like Jack and Billy Verity, whose family has worked on the bay since the 1800s. Today, Billy’s the only one left working that part of the bay.”
Then his job designing standardized tests took precedence for 20 years. But I see a connection to the care and meticulousness he brought to writing multiple-choice questions and how he brings the same care and meticulousness and attention to detail to his oyster farm. After being away from the bay for 15 years, he never stopped thinking of his time on the water; a haunting thought that never let go of him. So, at 45 years old he called an old bayman friend and went out on his boat and felt at home on the water again.
He’s a lucky guy. He got a second chance.
When asked, “Is your oyster farm economically viable?” Mr. McCormack said, “The short answer is yes, but viability depends on many things in this business, some of which are not wholly within one’s control. Storms, ice, algae blooms, unexpected mortalities, and changing regulatory requirements can change your balance sheet in the blink of an eye. And even if those obstacles didn’t exist, the fundamental demands of a commercial oyster farm are many and constant. Viability can be achieved, but only after years of investment and commitment to overcoming challenges—both on the farm and in the marketplace. A lot of sweat equity and a good dose of luck. It’s called farming.”
On the future, he is optimistic. He will grow the oyster farm slowly. He is experimenting with scallops but they are more finicky and more difficult to grow so that will take trial and error and time.
Mr. McCormick’s son, Jack, is 5 years old and owns 1 percent of the business so there might be a next generation of oyster farmer coming up.
“I love being on the water.” In his other life, he never said, “I can’t wait to get up to write multiple choice questions.” He added, “Now, I can’t wait to get to my oysters. I don’t see myself leaving the bay any time soon.”