OYSTERS
 

Report:
In 1885, Eugene Blackford, Commmissioner of Fisheries in charge of Oyster Investigation presented his report to the Legislature of the State of New York. Oystering was big business then, garnering over $350,000 (1885 dollars) each year in wholesale sales alone. By the 1880s, the natural beds were nearly all fished out, and a much greater part of oystering was in planted beds. The rising prices of oysters had driven the working class Canal Street oysters cellars of 30s and 40s out of business. Most of the shallow waters around New York were claimed by townships, and each town would regulate (or not regulate) the use of the public waters.
Oyster Barges Beneath the Williamsburg Bridge
on the Manhattan side of the East River

The usual restrictions were "residents only," with some requiring at least a one-year residency. some communities limited the size of these underwater land claims, charged fees, assessed penalties to interlopers from other communities. Oystering supported large numbers of families, and oyster theft was a problem for many planters. Other jobs surrounded the oyster business, brokerage, import/export, street vendors, restaurants, and many involved in the harvest and transportation, including railroads and ferries. Oysters were part and parcel of life in New York, eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner, pickled, stewed, baked roasted, fried, scalloped and in soups, patties and puddings.

In the excerpts of the report in each borough activity, it seems evident that garbage and overfishing were already taking a heavy toll, even when the oyster industry was in its heyday of the late 1800s. A few years after this report, many of the waters were closed after outbreaks of typhoid.

Canarsee Indians dug clams and oysters west of Coney Islands in Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Queens. Oysters were plentiful and popular with European settlers, but by 1810, the natural beds showed signs of exhaustion. In a short time, oyster planting and cultivation became a major metropolitan industry. From 1880 to 1920, New York was the undisputed oyster capital of the United States.

Dredging techniques had increased oyster catches more than 10 times, and individual oyster men were forming corporations to get access to these techniques and equipment to harvest in deeper waters. The 1885 Commissioner of Fisheries' report (see link above) estimated that 1,200 families were supported by the oyster industry on the south shore of Long Island, including Jamaica Bay. Unfortunately, rapid urban growth and industrial development took a toll on food from local waters. In 1890, the press linked oysters to outbreaks of typhoid fever and gastro-intestinal distress. The local water of Jamaica Bay was condemned in 1912.

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