Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, July 30, 2007

1885 Report Notes Decline of Oyster Industry Near City Island in the Town of Pelham

In 1885, the Commissioner of Fisheries of the State of New York issued a gloomy report about the decline of oysters in New York waters. The report focused on the area around City Island in the Town of Pelham as "typical" of such declining oyster beds.

A news account published in the New York Times summarized the report. That news account is reproduced below.



The last Legislature of the State having made an appropriation of $5,000 to be expended by one of the New-York State Fish Commissioners for the purpose of investigating into the causes of the decrease of oysters in the waters of the State, to determine what extent oysters were injured by starfish or other animals, and to ascertain how the oyster industry may be protected, the report due to Mr. E. G. Blackford presents the fullest information on these various subjects. Prof. H. J. Rice having specially in charge the scientific portion of the work, the report under notice comprises such examinations as were made by Mr. Blackford of the beds themselves, with a supplement, due to Prof. Rice, on the propagation and natural history of the American oyster.

As the time of investigation was necessarily limited and the beds numerous, Mr. Blackford thought it wiser to study what were the typical oyster regions and to gather testimony from practical oyster workers, so that the results should serve as a basis for further research should the Legislature desire to continue the work in the same direction. Prof. Baird, the United States Fish Commissioner, who has always shown himself so desirous of giving his aid to the fishery industries of the State, having placed the Lookout at Mr. Blackford's disposal at the nominal cost of running expenses during some two weeks, 10 different localities on the Sound and on the north shore of Long Island were visited and dredgings made both of the natureal and planted beds of the vicinity, careful record having been taken of the condition of the bottom, of the number and quality of the oysters, and also of the presence of the enemies of the oyster. During the first months of last Winter a series of meetings or conferences of oystermen were held, and from these much information was obtained. Mr. Blackford's personal observations did not extend to any oyster territory of the State to the eastward of Patchogue on the south side, or Port Jefferson on the north side, of Long Island.

About 19 miles from New-York is City Island, which Mr. Blackford designates as the typical oyster community. Here he found that persistent working of oyster territory 'has had a marked effect in diminishing oyster areas.' The tendency seems in every case, for the oystermen to take all the available oysters off of the natural beds, and when these are all despoiled, to convert them into beds for planting purposes. It becomes, then, difficult from the claims made by oystermen to determine which are planted or natural beds, which is at least something to be thankful for; but from the destruction of the natural beds, it must become obvious that as these are the nurseries or the young oysters, and where the spat is formed in the greater aboundance, their loss is a serious one. The oyster business is, however, as a whole, greater than it was some years ago, 'and this has been brought about by the extension of the planted lands at the expense of the natural ones.' The Commissioner finds some fault with the indifference shown by oystermen to study the nature of their business. They are content to follow in the old rut. * * * Most of the men are trying to work entirely too much ground, apparently on the principle that it is much easier to get $100 worth of oysters from 10 acres than to do the work which will bring in return $150 from one acre.' Examinations of the planted bed are never made by the owners until the oysters are secured for a market. Efforts on the part of those who plant to catch the embryotic oysters and to secure spat for themselves is never thought of. When oystermen use the dredge and bring up the drill, (Vrosalpinx cinerea,) which kills the oyster, they rarely if ever pick it out and destroy it, but throw it overboard again, so that it may again lessen their yield. From the natural enemies of the oyster, the drill and the starfish, these being the natural destroyers perhaps for their eradication little can be done, but there is no place in the Sound where just complaint is not made as to the injury the oyster industry received from the dumping of garbage, and the presence of sludge acid from the petroleum works. In many instances when Mr. Blackford dredged at quite a distance from New-York the presence of city refuse was shown. 'There can be no doubt,' writes Mr. Blackford, 'that there is one enemy which certainly can be gotten rid of if the right means are employed, that is the refuse material from oil works and sugar refineries which is now thrown into the water.'

Mr. Blackford pays considerable attention to the claims of oystermen to their beds and the rights granted them by certain corporations. This subject is an exceedingly complex one, difficult of solution, and it is quite a question as to whether any of the towns have the right to grant such privileges. In the South Bay patents of 1666 and of 1686 give certain privileges as to the securing of beds, but the validity of such grants is very doubtful. In fact, the lease question seems to require certain fixed laws. In his conclusion Mr. Blackford thinks that the investigations made by him demonstrate that, as a whole, the oyster industry, as carried on in the waters of our State, is of much greater scope than it was formerly, and is of constantly increasing importance, and that this extension of the boundaries of our oyster areas is due entirely to labor in the direction of private cultivation. In other words, while the amount of land upon which oysters can be found to-day is considered greater that [sic] it was 15 or 20 years ago, and accodingly the yield of oysters is also considerably greater, the increase in the number of beds is due to the fact that the oystermen have, in response to the increasing demands for this dainty from our enlarged population, monopolized land from the public domain beneath water, which was before such appropriation of no value as oyster-producing territory, since the bottom was too muddy to admit of any 'set' taking place and thriving upon it. To supply this extensive area with the raw material required for future results the natural growth beds have been almost incessantly and unscrupulously drawn upon for their products, until now it is probably impossible to find a piece of natural growth oyster ground within the limits of our State waters, which in productiveness, and especially in the size of the oysters obtained from it, is not very much below what it was only a few years ago. The private beds have thus been increased at the expense of the natural grounds, but in connection with this destructive working of the natural beds by the oystermen, it should constantly be borne in mind that there are always more or less natural enemies of the oysters on all natural beds, and that these enemies are at work for a goodly portion of the time, just as the oystermen are, in getting their living by industrious application and persistence in their peculiar lines of research, and in endeavoring, by fully as unscrupulous methods as those in use by the oystermen, to cause trouble in these peaceful communities. Besides the devastation caused by these natural enemies of the oysters and the nearly incessant tonging and dredging which have been practiced upon these beds by the oystermen for years past, sometimes, as has been shown, to their entire extinction as natural growth grounds, and their subsequent sequestration as private property, they have been and are now the dumping grounds for quantities of garbage, mud, and various kinds of trash from the cities of New-York and Brooklyn, most of which refuse material should have been destroyed on land, and never allowed to be carried away to be dumped into our waters and assist in filling up our channels and destroying our harbors and fisheries.

Anticipating certain recommendations, to be based on a more extended investigation, the Commissioner believes that it would be well to pass a law making it a close season for oysters from the 15th day of July until the 1st day of October, that rewards be offered for the capture of starfish, and that those in control of garbage boats should be made to comply with the laws in regard to dumping their loads.

Prof. Rice's experiments with oyster culture are exceedingly interesting. Commencing unfortunately too late in the season, ripe oysters were difficult to obtain, and then again, the temperature of the water in his artificial ponds varied too much in temperature from the same reasons. There is every reason to suppose that in time the artificial culture of the oyster from the ova will be possible. It would seem, however, to require an expanse of water somewhat larger than is at present employed at Cold Spring Harbor. Mr. Blackford, who has a sound, practical acquaintance with the subject under investigation, presents an exceedingly clear and well written report."

Source: Our Oysters: Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries of the State of New-York, N.Y. Times, Jun. 15, 1885, p. 3, col. 5.

Please Visit the Historic Pelham Web Site
Located at http://www.historicpelham.com/.
Please Click Here for Index to All Blog Postings.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home