It wasn’t what he’d planned on. Although, when you get deep into conversation with Eel Town Oysters founder and owner, Robert “Bert” Waife, you get the notion that he’s as comfortable accepting the ebb and flow of life’s surprises as he is with the tidal change of the waters in which he farms his oysters.
Waife and his family live on Shelter Island, which is also the source of his company’s name. Eel Town is the colloquial designation given to the little spot on the eastern side of the island rimming the waters of Coecles Harbor, demarcated (unofficially, anyway) off North Cartwright Road and down a little-known, dead-end street called Hudson Avenue. “I appropriated the name Eel Town, which is an almost sacred spot on Shelter Island. Historically, it’s where eel and bunker fisherman would get their fish and process the menhaden,” Waife says. “It was a down-to-earth type of place for locals.”
While Waife himself is not a harelegger—a person born, quite literally, on the island—his family’s history here is fairly long. His grandfather bought the family house in the 1950s, and Waife became a summer kid who fell deeply in love with the wild landscape of island. As a teenager, though, the city called, beckoning him to satiate his creative side—something that runs in the family. His great-grandfather was Sholem Aleichem, the playwright and author who created the iconic character of Tevya the Dairyman, upon which the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof was built. Aleichem’s son, Waife’s great uncle Norman Raeben, was an artist with a studio in Carnegie Hall who took an art-aspiring Waife under his wing, an experience that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
“He taught Bob Dylan to paint! He was completely fascinating,” says Waife. “His teaching was about painting but so much more about life and spirituality and vision. About how to see and what perception was about.”
By the ‘80s, Waife was living the bohemian life in the East Village, going to museums and working on his art. At the end of that decade, though, the claustrophobia and grit of urban life began to wear on him, and he set off on a soul-searching walk-about. He traveled to Europe, went on kibbutz in Israel, taught and danced Argentine tango for 15 years and at one point even took a job cooking on a schooner in the South Pacific. The cooking didn’t inspire him, but of all those rich experiences, life on the water did.
In 1989, he decided to fix up and move into the then-abandoned old family house on Shelter Island. He worked as a boat captain for well-to-do boat owners who didn’t want to do the sailing themselves. It was then that he also met and befriended islander, Jimmy Clark, longtime bayman, ferry captain and mechanic who encouraged Waife to get into the mooring business. Waife once again found himself apprenticing under someone who’d become another dear mentor in his life. “Jimmy got me started in oysters,” he says.
It wasn’t until around the early aughts, though, that Waife got oyster-serious. He joined Cornell’s SPAT (Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training) program and spent the next bunch of years learning more and more about raising oysters, researching different techniques for cultivating market-friendly bivalves. He also started looking around for a spot to lease from the county in order to farm his own professionally, an endeavor that took several years.
Eel Town Oysters officially launched in 2019. He started small, seeding about 100,000 oysters that he grows in mesh bags, changing them up as their size increases over the months. Last year, he brought in about 600,000, and sells to places like Braun Seafood in Cutchogue, and restaurants like First and South in Greenport, Vine Street Café, the Chequit and the Pridwin in Shelter Island, the American Hotel in Sag Harbor and Gosman’s in Montauk. He also sells them at the Shelter Island Farmer’s Market during the summer season, and at festivals, private parties and events like a recent one he did for Kidd Squid in Sag Harbor, where he shucks his fresh fare for crustacean-craving customers.
All oysters on the East Coast are a species called Crassostrea virginica, or eastern oysters, but oyster farmers typically find more charming and memorable titles for their bivalves. Montauk Shellfish Company grows Montauk Pearls; Promised Land Mariculture Co. in East Hampton farms Lazy Point Oysters; Hampton Oyster has Mermaid Makeouts.
Waife named his Bohemians, a fitting nod to this oysterman’s long-cultivated artistic streak. When he isn’t hauling in sacks of oysters, Waife designs graphics, silk screens and embroidered pieces for his other business, Last Boat T-Shirts. His Eel Town logo mimics the graphic from the old Shelter Island Oyster Company, a small oyster processing plant that operated in Greenport from 1935 to 1950, its green cans with yellow lettering are now collector’s items around the East End.
“All the eastern oysters are the same species, and yet they taste different,” says Waife, which by and large has to do in part with the salinity of the water. “Mine are really briny and have a mineral finish when you get them right away. Others around here are more buttery.” And different oyster farmers employ different techniques. Waife grows his using an off-bottom floating system, which allows him to use cages to suspend the sack-bound shellfish near the surface of the water.
An oysterman’s life is lived in the dark early morning hours, when Waife typically heads out to check on the growth of his Bohemians, all of which start as seed oysters purchased from local hatcheries, which take about 18 to 24 months to grow to the appropriate market size of around three to three and a half inches. “I put them in mesh bags and, as they grow, I put them in bigger bags so the oysters can have more food and not get clogged up with other growth.” He painstakingly hand sorts them for size, as bigger oysters tend to hog all the food from the smaller, and he needs them all to get a fair shake.
Each season presents its own beauty and bane. Summers on the water are, of course, a big part of the draw on eastern Long Island, but the heat of the sun means getting up in the dark and shading the oysters from the heat once the sun is up. Winter, of course, has its own set of challenges. “Nowadays, I don’t have to go out until about 8, and spend anywhere from three to six hours. But sometimes when its 20-something degrees, it’s harder to get on the boat. That’s the life of an oyster farmer.”
It’s one he’s in no hurry to change, though. “I’ll tell you, where I oyster is a pretty special spot. I’m about 1,000 feet off-shore from the Elizabeth Morton Sanctuary, near Jessup’s Neck,” says Waife. “This is the next life and chapter; it’s a life’s work.”