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Long Island’s Love Affair With Lobster

Once Part Of L.I.'s Fishery, Local Lobsters Have Disappeared


On a summer weekend, there is no better place to gauge the fascination consumers have with the king of crustaceans than Jordan’s Lobster Farm in Island Park. There are few places like it on Long Island, and it is not difficult to see that most people are aware of its position as one of the most popular fish stores in Nassau County, and beyond.

The front of the store is an orderly, well-lit area with attractive glass cases showcasing all kinds of fish. Reddish-purple slabs of tuna steak are neatly folded into each other. Pure white fluke fillets contrast the orange glow of beautiful salmon steaks. Scallops lay in heaps. In certain parts of the display cases, prepared foods, like blue claw crabs in garlic sauce, set the mouth to water.


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A fish store is like an attraction. There is something beautiful about what the sea begrudgingly gives up to mankind. Some of the fish may have been caught in hazardous conditions. Others are flown or driven in from afar. All of it took hard labor to make it to Jordan’s, and the customers seem to appreciate it all.

Steve Jordan, co-owner of Jordan’s, stands by, overlooking the operation. To his left, people peruse the fish market. To his right, the sterile conditions of the market give way to what amounts to a metal warehouse that has been outfitted to hold a mountain of tanks, set up high, and stacked and staggered so climbing to the top is really just climbing some big stairs. Water flows from pipes, keeping the tanks fresh and swirling.

Customers wait for their orders at Jordan’s.

Customers wait for their orders at Jordan’s.

Steve is clad in a blue Jordan’s golf shirt, khaki shorts and shoes that have seen some wet conditions. His brother Mike is wearing rubber overalls and rubber boots. He is high above the floor, going through the massive storage tanks and checking on the stock.

The lobster business, from Long Island to Canada and back, seems to have family business written all over it. The Jordans are no exception.

“We work very hard; have for our whole lives,” says Steve with a smile. “It’s not an easy business.”

Jordan’s does it all. They sell wholesale and retail. They will steam and cut the lobster. And for a nice waterside meal, the Jordan brothers built a dining garden outside of the lobster farm that is well-known and well-patronized. A line forms at an order window on the side of the building and smiling customers carry a stack of lobsters on plastic trays to the dining area.

The one-sided love affair between lobster and human is eons old. And every summer, dining rooms and decks all over Long Island are the scenes of lobster feasts. At Jordan’s, though—and all over Long Island—the lobsters they come for are not local. Rather, they are from Maine or Canada. At one time, many of those lobsters could have come from the Sound.

Until 1999, when the lobsters began dying.

Empty Shells

There are many myths surrounding the lives—and deaths—of lobsters in our local waters. By all accounts, lobsters were in great abundance when Native Americans still ruled the land. One legend of their appearance in local waters can be found in an article from The New York Times that ran in May, 1873. A ship containing lobsters from northern New England broke apart in New York Harbor, spilling its clawed cargo and thus creating a thriving population. But that is obviously a tall tale. The waters of the Long Island Sound were perfect for lobsters, which need rocky environs to grow.

Eventually, a lobster fishery was born, and it existed for more than 100 years.

In 1999, George Doll was one of about three dozen lobstermen who worked full time in the Northport/Huntington Bay area. Doll, currently the mayor of Northport, has been a lobsterman for 40 years, although these days he goes for anything he can catch. He says the die-off was overnight, and doubts the lobster will ever come back.

“There really was an overnight change,” says Doll. “Hurricane Floyd came through on a weekend, and brought a lot of rain. And on Monday, we went fishing and all the lobsters [in the traps] were dead.”

At the time, Doll was fishing up to 500 traps per day.

One of Jordan’s Lobster Farms’ “lobstertricians” holds up a five-pound lobster.

One of Jordan’s Lobster Farms’ “lobstertricians” holds up a five-pound lobster.

Doll began lobstering in the mid-’60s, after leaving the service. He actually began as a clammer, but at the time there was a surplus of people digging up the fruits of the bays. A friend suggested they try their hand at lobster fishing. They made an investment, and Doll made a living lobster fishing for decades, until 1999.

“I kept at it for another year or so [till 2000], expecting a miracle, but it never came,” says Doll. “A lot of guys just quit.  We did really good there for a long time. Then it ended.”

There has never been a definitive reason given for the die-off, one of the most startling and devastating in the history of our local fishery. Lobstermen blamed pesticides sprayed to kill mosquitoes and eliminate the threat of West Nile Virus. Others say it is the confluence of spraying and fertilizers and other poisons seeping into the waters. Many believe it is the global warming effect, and Bill Atwood, owner of Atwood Lobster Company in Spruce Head, Maine, says he sees the effects of the waters warming every year.

“We used to have ice in harbor every year,” says Atwood in a thick Maine accent. “But the water has warmed up. It doesn’t happen anymore.”

As the water warms up, especially in places like the Sound, oxygen levels can decrease. This, says Atwood, is what he believes to be the chief cause of the massive and catastrophic die-off that has crushed a once-brisk and lively business.

Another theory is the proliferation of predators in local waters. Striped bass have arrived in shocking numbers. A small lobster is a piece of candy to a striper, or fluke, or bluefish.

Atwood has seen the lobster world change. He started in the ’50s, and is a third-generation fisherman. Back in the mid- to late-20th century, New York held its own when it came to shipping lobsters up and down the eastern seaboard. But now, Atwood does a great deal of business with Long Island.

Doll says that is a shame, since up until the mid-1990s, you could pretty much bet that any lobster under two pounds or so being cooked up on Long Island came from local waters.

Not The Big Boys

Although some parts of the Sound were teeming with lobsters, Long Island has never been known as the land of giants when it comes to the tasty crustaceans. Most lobsters from the Sound were two pounds and under. Most lobstermen agree that the biggest were in the five- or maybe six-pound range.

No, the big lobsters come from the north. Steve Jordan says that when it comes to lobsters, people still like to grab a trophy and bring it to the table.

“There is something cool about a big lobster,” says Jordan. “People love to walk into a party or the house with a big, fat lobster.”

There is a cachet to a big old lobster, with the operative word being old. It takes about seven years for a lobster to get to a pound in length, and then it grows one-quarter of a pound each subsequent year. In other words, a big lobster is an old lobster.

At Gold Coast Lobsters in Huntington, trucks are being readied to ship lobsters to area restaurants and fish markets.

At Gold Coast Lobsters in Huntington, trucks are being readied to ship lobsters to area restaurants and fish markets.

In January, 2009, New York City seafood restaurant City Crab announced it had a 20-pound, 140-year old lobster in a tank at the popular eatery. Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) raced to the lobster’s rescue. The group won the war and got the chance to return the beast to the water, which it did, in a sheltered cove in Kennebunkport, Maine within a law’s length of former President George W. Bush’s summer hideaway.

Those who have remained in the lobster business for so long wonder what is on the horizon. Gold Coast Lobster, located in Huntington, is a good example of a business that has adapted. In a nondescript building on a side street near Town Hall, Jeff Carbone and his son, Steven, sit in an office side-by-side. Steven is wearing the prerequisite rubber overalls and boots. Through a large window in front of the desks they can look at their storage tanks. Lobsters sit in crates, immersed in water, waiting to be shipped to area restaurants and other locations.

Jeff Carbone has been in the business for more than 40 years, and once ran a fish market. As he speaks about the lobster industry and his company, he and Steven diligently take care of paperwork. Steven marks up order invoices and hands them over to Jeff, who computes the numbers on a calculator and writes down the figure on the bottom of the page. Things are off this year, worse than these two have seen in a long time. The economy has caused havoc on the lobster-buying public.

Jeff stays in the business for one reason.

“Him,” he says, pointing to his son as they both continue to work, eyes not moving from the desk.

As he speaks, Jeff begins to lean back in his seat and talk about the days when local lobsters were in abundance. There were so many the market was flooded. At one point, Gold Coast had a fleet of trucks, and ran as many, as two tractor trailers to Canada.

“I have two vans,” he says with a half laugh.

A customer at Gold Coast holds a five-pound lobster at bay.

A customer at Gold Coast holds a five-pound lobster at bay.

But the die-off in 1999 and 2000 was so fast, the bottom just fell out and nobody was prepared. As Jeff tells this story, the door opens, and in walks a tall man with a solid build and a weather-worn smile.

“This guy used to be a lobsterman,” says Jeff.

Sure enough, the man did his time on the water. He says when he realized the lobsters were not going to come back, he decided to hang it up. He needed surgery, anyway. But the former lobsterman would not give his name to be quoted for this story.

Because that is not who he is anymore.

The same might be said of Long Island’s lobster industry as a whole. But the insatiable hunger for lobster continues.

Steve Jordan admits business has been off this year, but he says that the lure of a great lobster is something that never goes away.

“People love a nice lobster,” he says. “There is something special about it.”

Moments later, a young girl laughs nervously as her father asks her to hold a five-pound lobster up for a photo. Clearly, the lobster is more than a fish or a meal. It is a curiosity, and like all such fancies the magic never seems to go away.


Clawing For Knowledge: Some Quick Facts About Lobsters

By Danielle Valente

The U.S. waters are home to both the “true” or American lobsters, which have claws on their first four legs, and spiny lobsters, which have a pair of horns above their eyes.

Lobsters struggle out of their shells and absorb water. This process, known as molting, is the way in which lobsters grow and expand in size. Once this cycle is complete, the lobster will weigh approximately one pound, although it is possible for them to grow to about three or more. Molting will occur roughly 25 times in the first five to seven years of a lobster’s life.

Although most inshore lobsters tend to stay in one location, deepwater lobsters are a bit more adventurous. One lobster, which was tagged off the Continental Shelf and recovered at Port Jefferson, traveled a record 225 miles.

Lobsters generally hunt for food each night, searching for—much to people’s surprise—clams and mussels. Believe it or not, researchers discovered that they shy away from dead things that most people believe they consume.

If they are not in the ocean hunting for food, they are usually being prepared as a meal themselves. Lobsters turn red due to the pigment that is considered the most stable component of coloring in their shell. Green and brown colorings in a live lobster are immediately destroyed when the crustacean is being prepared.

Near shore lobsters should be nicknamed dinner due to the 90 percent chance of being caught. One fisherman in 1974, however, did not catch any old lobster. “Big George” managed to catch a 37-pound lobster that was about 21 feet off Cape Cod. That is not one we are accustomed to seeing in the tank at Stop & Shop!


Lobster Succotash

By Chris Palmer

Three things I would need if I were stuck on a deserted (Long) Island: lobster, corn, fava beans. And of course, butter. This is a great accompaniment for any great local fish, such as fluke.

Ingredients:

  • 1-2 lb. lobster (local, steamed and de-shelled)
  • 6 ears corn on the cob (cut off cob)
  • 2 cups fava beans blanched and peeled
  • ¼ cup chopped leeks
  • 6 tbsp. whole butter
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tbsp. chopped parsley

Method:

  • In a large sauté pan, melt butter and sweat leeks, then add corn and fava beans. Sauté for three to four minutes.
  • Cut lobster into bite-size pieces and add to pan. Sauté till hot, then season with parsley, salt and pepper.

Lobster Island

By Ron Beigel

On Long Island, when the lobsters are cheap and plentiful you can get them everywhere, in tanks at supermarkets, at 24-hour diners and at a wide variety of restaurants. Some would rather tear into them at a restaurant and let the busboy clean up, while others prefer to eat in, save some cash and be spared the humiliation of wearing a bib in public. Here are a variety of options for all.

Jordan’s Lobster Farm
1 Pettit Place
Island Park
516-889-3314

Choose your lobster from the tank, pull up a stool at this waterside legend and revel in the taste of summer all year round, if you don’t mind roughing it a bit.

Southside Fish & Clam
395 W. Montauk Hwy.
Lindenhurst
631-226-3322

For more than 70 years, this Island legend has been the place to go for inexpensive twin-lobster dinners. Order at the counter and grab a picnic table.

Wall’s Wharf

18 Greenwich Ave.
Bayville
516-628-9696

Lobsters in all sizes at a casual beachside destination where you can stand on the sand with a glass of white, as you wait for your deck-top table to be readied.

Harbor Crab
116 Division St.
Patchogue
631-687-2722

Come by boat or car for giant lobsters and mid-week specials at this bi-level instant vacation on the Patchogue River.

Limani
1043 Northern Blvd.
Roslyn
516-869-8989

Giant crustaceans (up to six pounds) are grilled over the hot coals like most everything at this charming Greek stunner.

Lobster Inn
162 Inlet Rd.
Southampton
631-283-1525
Off the beaten path and as old school as it gets, without becoming a victim of the notorious Hamptons summer markup.

Capt. Joe’s @ John’s Farms
601 Old Country Rd.
Plainview
516-933-1448
Let them steam a monster for you at no extra cost. All you do is take it home, get out the electric saw and melt some butter.

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