Fourth Annual Long Island Natural History Conference


















The Historical Ecology of the Great South Bay’s Blue Point Oyster

Jeffrey Kassner, Research Associate, Long Island Maritime Museum West Sayville, NY 

During the 19th and early 20th century, the eastern oyster (Crassotrea virginica) was an important component of the American diet and was consumed in a variety of ways by all social classes.  To meet this demand, oysters were harvested from almost every estuary along the east coast of the United States and were oftentimes “cultivated” which entailed transplanting small “seed” oysters from one estuary into another estuary where they would be grown to market size. 

Because of their distinctive taste and shell shape which was the result of the particular environmental conditions in the Great South Bay, oysters harvested from the Great South Bay became known as “Blue Points” and were highly esteemed by oyster consumers.  Like most of the oyster fisheries, the Blue Point oyster industry began as a wild harvest fishery but by the second half of the 19th century had become dominated by oyster cultivation which dramatically increased the production of oysters above what the Bay was capable of producing naturally and which resulted in the privatization of the public bay bottom that led to social, economic, and political conflicts. 

Beginning around 1910, the production of Blue Point oysters began to slowly decline due to a combination of environmental changes in the Great South Bay that made the Bay less suitable habitat for oysters, a scarcity of seed oysters for cultivation, economic forces, and shifting consumer tastes that decreased the demand for oysters. By the 1950s, the Bay’s natural abundance of oysters had become insignificant and the Blue Point oyster industry was essentially over even though the phrase “Blue Point oyster” continued to be associated with high quality oysters.  These changes in trajectory of the Blue Point oyster industry will be described in the context of historical ecology.

Jeffrey Kassner is a volunteer research associate at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville and a first mate on the Museum’s 1888 National Register oyster sloop Priscilla.  He is a member of the adjunct faculty at Suffolk Community College (Biology), Stony Brook University (Marine Science), and Dowling College (Biology).  He was previously the Town of Brookhaven’s Director of Environmental Protection.