“Monday morning everyone’s a bit grumpy. Not people- wise, but the engines,” Captain Ralph Accardo remarks as he attempts to turn over the engines of the Ida May III before dawn on a chilly December morning.
Despite any grumbling, the engines start and the Ida May III is ready to start the day. Several more workers board the vessel and at 7 o’clock it heads out to the dredge zone of the day.
The quiet of Oyster Bay is replaced by humming engines, the laughter of crew members reminiscing about their weekends, and the shouts between the captains and workers onboard vessels from the fleet of Frank M. Flower & Sons Inc. dispersing around the bay. As the sun comes up, dredges pierce the water’s surface and the daily haul starts to come in.
The men on the company’s boats are continuing a tradition begun in 1876 by William A. Flower, when he built a house on the shore of Mill Neck and staked out three acres of oyster beds in Mill Neck Creek, an arm of Oyster Bay. His three sons helped rake up the oysters from rowboats. Frank was the only son to continue with the business. He began dredging with sailboats and then gasoline-powered vessels around the turn of the century, and he also began harvesting clams. In 1934, with the help of his sons, Allen, Butler and Roswell, he relocated the business across the creek to Bayville. After the natural “set” of oysters and clams began to diminish in the 1950s because of overharvesting and bad weather, the three brothers established a hatchery at the Bayville complex in 1963 to grow seed shellfish. When they have grown to sufficient size, the oysters and clams are placed in cages in Mill Neck Creek and then spread on the more than 1,800 acres of bay bottom leased from the Town of Oyster Bay through 2024.
Those leases are controversial, with an organization of independent shellfishermen, the North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association, engaged in long-term litigation with the company and town. Besides contending that the leases are illegal, the baymen contend the firm’s hydraulic dredging damages marine life by stirring up the bottom, a charge not validated by state or federal agencies to date.
While other small startup oyster and clam fishing companies—some with their own hatchery operations—have emerged in recent years, Flower, now owned by three longtime employees after the death of Butler Flower, remains by far Long Island’s largest operation. The Bayville hatchery produces 100 million seed oysters and 100 million clams annually.
Today the company operates 8 boats, which handle different chores from spreading seed oysters and clams, removing predators, and harvesting.
After receiving their daily assignments from the manager, Joe Vinarski, the vessels and their crews head out to collect oysters and clams off the bottom with a suction dredge if they’re bringing up oysters or with a hydraulic dredge for clam harvesting.
Everything that is brought up is sorted by hand on the vessel and any unwanted natural materials are returned overboard at the end of the day.
Not all hauls yield just shellfish. The vessels are known to “pull up everything from bottles to dentures, to dildos,” Accardo notes. The crews have come across wallets, rare antique “torpedo bottles,” the occasional adult toy, and even once a gun. It was not used in a crime: an unexpected wave washed the firearm overboard when a boater was not looking.
On a typical day, a single oyster dredge will bring in about 240 bushels. Due to an increase in population of oyster drills, a common predator, the harvest has declined from previous years. For this reason, the company has shifted to seating and harvesting primarily clams.
After three years the dredges will return and harvest the mature shellfish. While they are growing, inspectors or divers will go out monthly to ensure the oysters and clams are healthy and maturing well. After the oysters and clams have been harvested, they are returned to the packing facility on the south shore of Oyster Bay where a system of conveyer belts and lasers will sort and bag the shellfish based on size and quantity.
While they are shipped globally, many are consumed locally. The largest local consumption occurs every October at the Oyster Festival, the largest annual event on Long Island that attracts more than 200,000 visitors over two days. All the thousands of oysters eaten raw, fried or in stew come from Frank M. Flower & Sons.
The workers who provide them enjoy the camaraderie of working for the iconic firm and being able to spend their days outdoors. Accardo, who started at Frank M. Flower & Sons as a hatchery technician and worked up to captain, said he never wanted to do anything else.
“As a fisherman the most excitement is when the dredge just breaks the water,” he said. “You know, it’s like I haven’t worked here before and I want to see what I got. It’s like catching a trophy bass.”