Celebrating the crushed oyster shells featured in our new Seawool fabric styles, we sat down with local oyster farmer Meg Dowe, founder of Yennicott Oysters. Meg was kind enough to share some of her farm's delicious harvest with us during the Fall 2023 Collection launch event at our 19 Prince St. store. Here, she explains more about her work as an oyster farmer and the environmental benefits of this incredible mollusk.
While the rest of us are looking for ways to get cozy when the thermometer dips into the 20s, Meg Dowe, founder of Yennicott Oysters, is out on the freezing waters of Long Island tending to her farm. "We spent a lot of time at the beach and on boats, so I was always really connected with fishing and clamming." explains the sustainable oyster farmer who bases her bivalve beds in the Shelter Island Sound and Peconic Bay.
The sea is also rooted in her family history, where ten generations of sea captains dating back to the 1600s eventually pivoted into oyster farming outside Hempstead Bay, west of the Rockaways. Meg and her father started growing oysters for fun in the early 2000s before she launched Yennicott Oysters in 2014, returning to the family tradition carried out by her grandfather 70 years ago.
A Historic Resource
At the turn of the century, New York was once one of the most extensive oyster reefs in the world, and locals ate an estimated million oysters daily until around 1927 when overharvesting and water pollution depleted their numbers. In a full-circle moment, oysters may again contribute to solving food scarcity.
“Aquaculture is a developing industry but I see it as an essential measure to protect our planet, as our food production globally needs to double by the year 2050, and wild fisheries are depleted,” she explains. Today, the US imports 70-85 percent of its seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. government-run scientific and regulatory agency. “Aquaculture is a way in which we can sustainably meet the demands of the future and create a more resilient food security system,” Meg says.
Crucial for the Environment
Recently, there has been renewed interest in rebuilding the oyster population. Besides their delectable flavor, scientists have recognized the environmental contribution of these marvelous mollusks and determined them a critical natural resource for the future.
The bivalves act as keystone species in marine ecosystems, so other surrounding sea life thrives when oysters do. The filter feeders can rehabilitate local marine habitats by sharing nutrients with fellow sea creatures, like eels, seahorses, and blue crabs, among many others. "Oyster farms have changed the landscape beneath the water's surface," says Meg. "I've noticed this firsthand. There can be five to 10 times the biodiversity of marine life and plants in and around an oyster farm."
Oyster reefs, which can provide a habitat for hundreds of species, also protect the shoreline. They act as a natural breakwater to help break large waves, reduce flooding, and prevent erosion—which will no doubt become even more essential with the rising sea levels and intensified storm systems caused by climate change.
"Oysters are important to the ecosystem of the bays filtering out into the ocean," explains Meg. As filter feeders, each acts as a natural water filter, cleaning 30-50 gallons of water daily. Their reefs continue the good work, capturing organic and decaying plant matter in sediment and filtering out excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that deplete essential oxygen from the water. Even oyster shells contribute to the environment, as the calcium carbonate helps mitigate water acidification.
The Growing Process
While farmed oysters are somewhat self-sufficient, gaining all of their nourishment from the waters they reside in, they still demand a certain amount of care. Meg starts with hatchery seeds at just two millimeters, growing them in a small pump system that gently runs water through them. She cleans them and hand sorts them for two months until they reach a half inch, when they are transferred into the bay to the cages in the oyster grounds.
With help from her husband, Cam, for more than a year, she'll clean and sort them, condition the shells, and keep the cages free of predators. "If you leave them alone, they won't grow properly because fouling organisms will block the water flow, and predators will come and eat everyone," Meg explains. Her stock of an estimated 500,000-700,000 oysters stays in her care for 18 months to two and a half years before they leave for consumption.
A Continued Impact
But their ecological impact continues. After they are consumed, many of the Manhattan restaurants Meg sells her oysters to donate the shells to the Billion Oyster Project, a New York-based non-profit to restore one billion oysters to the New York Harbor by 2035. Locally, Meg and her Long Island customers donate their shells to the Cornell Marine Extension, which uses them to make artificial reefs. She also saves broken shells for local farmers to use in compost. Our Seawool fabric made with crushed oyster shells, cotton, and recycled PET bottles, is just the latest use for the half-shell heroes.
Meg, who nurtures these vital creatures from tiny seeds into adulthood, physically labors with their care and hustles to keep her small business going, is gratified to be a part of this impactful journey. "It's like the dream job for me and I really don't want to do anything else,” she says. “I’m very excited to see the future of aquaculture and how what I’m doing can potentially make a difference.”