Oyster farms are all the rage—until they block your ocean views
Despite the desire for local and sustainable seafood, oyster farmers and communities from New York to Rhode Island clash.
This article was originally featured on Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.
From the shore, you have to squint to see them—the 50 or so objects that look like large black duffel bags floating in several rows near the surface of Napeague Bay in East Hampton, New York. And if it’s dark, or the wind churns up waves, you might not spot them at all. To get a better look from the beach, you really need binoculars, which is what Adam Younes uses when he wants to do a visual check of these bobbling floats marking his oyster farm. But on most days, he putters his small boat 805 meters offshore to the site, easily navigating the nine-meter channels between the rows, to check on the cages suspended just below the water’s surface. Within each cage, hundreds of oysters fatten up until their salty, soft inner bodies are big enough to be served at seaside restaurants and galas and probably aboard the yachts that occasionally sail by.
In 2016, Younes picked this four-hectare plot, about half the size of a baseball field, because it was a 10-minute drive from his house. He named his oyster farm Promised Land, a biblical reference to a peaceful resting place. The area’s shores and marshes and quietly swaying woods have always felt like heaven to him.
Yet, the name didn’t live up to reality. Younes soon found out that some people didn’t want the oysters there, including members of the coveted Devon Yacht Club who often convene in a one-story cedar-shingled building roughly half a kilometer away on the shores of Napeague Bay. Between 2018 and 2021, members from Devon and other yacht clubs, along with area residents, aired their grievances about aquaculture and oyster farms like Younes’s during a series of long, and what at times felt like deadlocked, public meetings. The meetings were part of a 10-year review of the aquaculture lease program by Suffolk County, which East Hampton is a part of. Locals, particularly those who were boaters, accused oyster farmers of obstructing access to nature with their floating gear. “We’re going to pave paradise and turn it into a parking lot,” one resident said, paraphrasing a popular antidevelopment song to make a point about floating farm gear.
Younes never imagined that his farm, his promised land, would unleash so much disapproval. More than a year later, the memories of the review continue to haunt him. “Talking about this still makes me sick and angry,” he says, with a heavy sigh. “It was an emotional fight.”
Oyster farmers across the United States and parts of Canada are being confronted by a growing population of coastal residents who are upset about where farms are going up. Along the US East Coast, as well as in other prime oyster-growing regions such as Washington State and British Columbia, tempers have flared. Coastal homeowners are making passionate speeches at local meetings and enlisting lawyers, as Devon Yacht Club did, to help appeal farm leases they deem are too close to where they live and play. “It’s probably as contentious as it’s ever been,” says Ben Stagg, who, until the end of 2022 was chief of shellfish management at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, an agency that manages that state’s oyster leases. At one point in 2022, Stagg had about 260 lease applications to look through, and of those, 30 percent were being protested by locals, a rate that he says has generally tripled in recent years.
The disputes come just as North American interest in oysters is growing. Oysters are increasingly recognized as a sustainable seafood, and they capture their own food from the water column, benefiting the ecosystem. An oyster is like nature’s Brita pitcher: it can filter about 189 liters of water per day, removing excess nitrogen and phosphorus. As climate change progresses, oyster aquaculture could also help mitigate some of the issues coastal communities are facing, suggests Nick Ray, a biogeochemist at Cornell University in New York who does research in aquaculture. The oyster’s filtering abilities reduce pollution, and cages full of oysters serve as a living coastal buffer against storm surges and erosion, he says.
After struggling early in the pandemic, some farmers in the United States described the summer of 2021 as “bonkers” as they worked overtime to deliver oysters to customers who were craving the salty bivalves after a long period of COVID-19-induced restaurant closures. Chuck Westfall, an oyster farmer and executive of the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, says that demand was so high people kept buying even after all the premium oysters were sold, gladly snatching up those he would consider a little subpar because they hadn’t had the time to grow. Farmers are saying 2022 was another good year, though demand cooled a bit.
Unsurprisingly, potential newcomers to the industry seem to be taking note. In some areas, like Maine and North Carolina, applications for oyster farms are on the rise. In most states, farmers essentially rent water space for a set amount of time. Stagg approves leases as big as 101 hectares, roughly one-third the size of Central Park in New York City. In Suffolk County, Younes and other farmers can lease four hectares for 10 years. Many states have interactive maps that show the available space, sites the state has vetted and deemed appropriate for aquaculture (although in some places, the auditing occurred long before nearby residential development took off). A farmer submits an application for a particular site and a review process follows—resource managers like Stagg consider factors such as the farm’s size, water depth, and other nearby activity before approving the application. In some states, local residents must be notified of the proposal, and there’s a public comment period where they can chime in. But not every state allows input, and even where there are opportunities for public comment, residents often argue they are not properly informed about a prospective farm’s size, location, or methods.
Friction in the oyster world seems to stem from differing beliefs about what the water should primarily be used for: work or leisure? Is it for kayaking and boating or for producing food? Is it meant to be devoid of “eyesores” so people can look onto a smooth, glassy surface from their decks or yachts? Some people would say all of the above, that it’s all possible, but areas where those demands overlap are where the conflicts tend to erupt. In uberwealthy East Hampton, members of the Devon Yacht Club and other residents argued that Younes’s floating cages were a hazard to navigation. Curt Schade, one of the club’s former board members, says the area is heavily used for recreational boating, especially in the summer when the club runs a youth sailing program. In public review hearings, club members also made sure to mention Devon’s historical ties: they had been sailing those waters for more than 100 years. “If the cages had been on the bottom, there really would have been very little conflict,” Schade says, referring to another aquaculture method where oyster cages are anchored to the sea or bay floor, rather than floated near the surface.
Younes points out that his cages are near the surface only between June and October, which helps him get higher yields since there is more food for the oysters to feast on near the surface and he’s better able to monitor the shells and address any problems; after that, he drops the cages to the seafloor. Unfortunately, the months the cages are on the surface are also peak sailing season.
If you travel north from East Hampton across Long Island Sound, you’ll land on the southern shores of Rhode Island. Here, the landscapes feel nearly identical to East Hampton: cedar-shingled homes near smooth beaches framed by swaying beach grass. The community issues echo across the sound, too—here, the waters have also become a source of tension between some residents and oyster farmers. The sleepy town of Tiverton, tucked into the southeastern corner of the state, may not have the same concentration of monied residents as East Hampton, but people are just as adamant about protesting certain oyster farms. In the summer of 2021, dozens of yellow signs began showing up on manicured lawns in Tiverton, urging residents to Act Now!!! The signs were put up by community members who oppose a proposed oyster farm. Unlike Younes’s farm, which is accessible only via boat, the roughly half-hectare farm on the Tiverton site could be reached by wading into the relatively shallow waters of the Sakonnet River. Brothers John and Patrick Bowen, the two farmers behind the proposed site, were attracted by the alternative to running a boat to a location farther offshore and also noted the site wasn’t great for swimming or kayaking.
But some residents think the farm’s placement is actually its flaw and have differing ideas about the area’s use. “It’s a public access point with free parking, used by many to fish, kayak, and swim,” says Kenneth Mendez, a Tiverton resident. He equates the operation’s location to putting an organic farm in the middle of a public baseball field. “I think most people would say, No, we’re not okay with that,” he says. “There are other areas to farm. And this area is valued and has social good and impact for all those who use it.”
In both coastal communities, residents voice concerns that oyster farms would be privatizing and profiting from space that has always been public.
Farmers think these space concerns are overblown. “Kayakers and small boats would be able to easily navigate through our lease area,” the Bowen brothers explain by email. “Our proposal will not prevent anyone from fishing. All proposed gear will be subtidal, not visible above the waterline (except four mandatory corner marker buoys).”
Because his site is 805 meters offshore, Younes believes boats have more than enough room to go around the farm. “And they do it every day. Sometimes they even go through my site,” he says. When he submitted his public comment letter during the review process, he attached several photos. They showed bluebird skies, small waves cresting on the bay, and a smattering of sailboats, all appearing to navigate the waters around this operation with ease. At least in those still images, the farm and boats seem to coexist peacefully, all enjoying a promised land.
Other industry supporters point out that boating comes with the inherent responsibility of paying attention and navigating around objects, be it other boats or oyster farms. “If you are a recreational boater, you should be aware of hazards—there are many,” says Karen Rivara, president of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association and an oyster farmer in Southold, New York. “Other boaters are the biggest danger, not gear.”
On the briny, unsettled surface, these disagreements can sometimes look like a class rift—a clash between the working class and coastal elites, between people who make their living in the water and those whose work has afforded them the opportunity to purchase properties, like second homes, on the water. In the past few years, there’s been an influx of people and money into many coastal towns. By some estimates, the population of Southampton, a wealthy area of New York that’s part of the Hamptons, nearly doubled in 2020 as affluent New Yorkers fled the newly circulating coronavirus. (Home prices in some areas doubled from 2020 to 2021; the median sale price in July 2022 was US $2.5-million, with several homes selling for $30-million or more.) A similar pattern unfolded in coastal communities in Rhode Island, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and Maine.
As new residents pour in, the population shift could be ushering in people who might not have an appreciation for, or connection to, coastal economies. Although oysters have been harvested for centuries in the wild, aquaculture in its current form, with gear and floats, is comparatively new. Many people haven’t had the time to get used to it, let alone romanticize it like they do other types of marine industries. “If you go to Maine, there are far more lobster buoys per acre than there are oyster cages in Narragansett Bay,” says Jules Opton-Himmel, owner of Walrus and Carpenter Oysters in Narragansett, Rhode Island. People paint pictures of the colorful buoys or travel to see them, thinking they’re quaint, he says. Lobster harvesting is “part of the culture there, and people accept it and like it. But there’s not that cultural history [with oyster farming] here.”
Still, it’s important not to generalize—research shows that wealth is actually not a strong predictor of aquaculture support. A 2015 study from Vancouver Island University in British Columbia found that factors like affluence or even living near the water or knowing someone who works in the aquaculture industry aren’t good indicators of a person’s attitude toward oyster farming. Instead, attitudes seem to vary by community, says study coauthor Grant Murray, now a marine social scientist at Duke University in North Carolina. “And we don’t really know why that is … it could be due to local culture or networks of people who talk to each other and convince one another that it’s good or bad.”
The tensions between residents and farmers bring up a larger question: If the water is a public good, whose needs and wants will ultimately prevail? And who gets to decide that? In Virginia and other states, resource managers like Stagg make the call. If a lease is protested, Stagg would try to work with both parties to come up with a compromise, becoming less like a government official and more like a marriage counselor. Typically, after some back and forth between farmers and residents, he was able to scooch leases a few meters over. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s often enough to appease both parties. But not every alternate location will work. To the general public, water may look like water pretty much anywhere you go. But factors such as depth, currents, temperature, and sediment composition can vary even within just a few meters and can impact the success of an oyster-growing site.
Stagg also admits that finding common ground between residents and farmers is getting harder. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I think I am pretty good at trying to negotiate these [leases]. But it’s getting really difficult because people really dig in pretty, pretty hard,” he says. “People don’t have unfettered access to the water like they did in the past. And they don’t like that.” He started to turn down lease applications in areas he thought would be contentious.
If resource managers like Stagg can’t help opposing groups find a compromise, cases usually move on to the local city council or courts, where they can get stuck as appeals and counter-appeals are volleyed between parties. The process becomes costly, time consuming, and emotionally taxing. When community members objected to one of Opton-Himmel’s leases in Rhode Island, he tried to resolve things the traditional way: by going to local meetings to explain his business plan. But his neighbors remained unsatisfied, and they hired an attorney. So he did, too. Yet neither group would budge.
One day, Opton-Himmel received an email from the Young Farmer Network with an ad for a mediation service; he called the number and set up an appointment. A few months later, on a July afternoon, Opton-Himmel and seven community members met with a mediator at the public library. He remembers the initial mood as tense: “Nobody shook hands, and this was before the pandemic.” But a few hours later, the tenor changed as each side got to know the other. Opton-Himmel learned that these residents had been saving for decades to retire on the water, and the view they were getting with his floating cages in the distance wasn’t the empty bay they had been daydreaming about. “And they said [to me], ‘Oh, well, we just thought you were a greedy capitalist doing an illegal thing that you knew you could get away with,’” he says. (There was a misunderstanding about how many cages he could use.) After several meetings, they reached a compromise: Opton-Himmel agreed to move his farm to another site, but he could expand and have eight times more cages. He still had to get all the necessary government approvals, but residents agreed to not protest his lease. “The mediation was the key to finding a solution,” he says. “Otherwise, we would probably still be fighting to this day.”
On Long Island, oyster farmers aren’t sure they have anything more to give. “I don’t see much room for compromise because we’ve already given up quite a bit,” says Younes. After the 10-year review process, Younes was able to keep his farm in place, but the county took away nearly 5,200 hectares of potential aquaculture cultivation zone. “Those are economic opportunities and aquaculture opportunities for the future of Suffolk County that are gone,” he says, adding that he’s heard that the exhausting review process has deterred others from setting up new farms.
States have been looking for ways to get ahead of the conflict. Instead of leasing out smaller parcels of water in increasingly developed areas, some states, like North Carolina, are considering designating aquaculture zones in more remote areas—say, 50 or 100 hectares of water subdivided into several farms. While this idea could mitigate conflicts between neighbors, Murray says that there are risks to lumping everyone together. Storms and water-quality issues, for example, could destroy entire oyster yields. And there’s no guarantee that those remote shorelines won’t eventually become desired by people looking for their own slice of coastal paradise, the next promised land. In Tiverton, Mendez, an opponent of the current location of the Bowen farm, supports something relatively more modest: that oyster farms be placed at least 305 meters from the shore. Similar efforts have been successful in places like New Zealand, which requires a much more significant five-kilometer buffer between the coast and aquaculture farms. (Of course, this solution means that farmers are burning more fuel to get to their sites.) But even that cushion may not appease dissenters: in Suffolk County, Younes and other farmers are already required to be at least 305 meters offshore, and that regulation clearly hasn’t been enough to dodge conflict.
As coastal communities continue to squeeze in more people, more yachts, and more recreation, states might have to revisit current aquaculture programs to see what’s viable now. Farmers and residents may find that compromise is easier when they channel the creatures they’re fighting over. Not by hardening their shells, but instead by softening their stances about what can and can’t be done on the water so that they see each other as neighbors who can coexist, rather than opponents. Oysters can be an important protein for the future and a buffer against some climate change impacts only if society can balance competing interests.
This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission.