Oysters may have connotations of frivolity, wealth, and excess, but no seafood-loving foodie can argue that the briny bivalves are anything but delicious. They also have a long history in the U.S. Oysters were consumed by coastal Native Americans and became wildly popular in Colonial and early America. The nutrient-rich waters around New York City became the center of production for the booming oyster industry. By 1880 fishermen were harvesting around 700 million oysters a year from New York's waters.
Not long after its meteoric rise a combination of polluted waters and invasive species drove oyster cultivation to ruin and the price sky high. (For more oyster history, see Mark Kurlanksy's history of oysters and New York City, The Big Oyster; History on the Half Shell.) Thankfully, though, oyster cultivation was not dead. It moved away from the polluted waters of the big city and found safe harbor elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.
And just like the progress made on land, the last 20 years has seen leaps and bounds made in the theory and practice of low-impact, sustainably farmed seafood, oysters included. Perry Raso is one of these pioneering aqua-farmers; he tends a seven-acre shellfish farm in East Matunuck, Rhode Island, and runs a wildly popular local restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar, that overlooks the estuary and inlet that make up his farm. I spoke with Perry on the morning of Easter Sunday as he shucked oysters and prepared for the inevitable influx of locals at his restaurant.
So you are in the restaurant on Easter Sunday? I'm actually shucking oysters as we speak. We just got our first table; a couple of people looking to eat oysters. (Ed. note: It's 11:45 A.M)
Sounds like a popular place. I read that you stayed open all winter, despite other plans? We thought that it was a tourist market; we've got lots of tourists here and we thought after summer they would go away and our customers would be gone. But the tourists went away and the locals came, and they came every week, sometimes several times a week. We thought at the end of September we'd close, but we were busy at the end of September, so we stayed open through October, and then we cut it down to four days in November and that was going to be it, but we tried opening the next week and people still came and then we just never closed. After Valentine's Day things started picking up and we just expanded back to seven days. We're cranking along here.
How did the restaurant come about? I grew up living across the street from the marina. I kept my boat and the nursery system in the marina. The restaurant is actually the only commercial property on the pond and I needed a commercial dock. I used to always drive by it on my boat, and I didn't know how I was going to buy property on the water, but the economy got the way it did. So I purchased the property because the farm was doing well enough and I wanted to ensure the future of the farm.
And you thought, "I'm raising oysters, I might as well have an oyster bar?" I thought i'd make it a fish market if the restaurant didn't make it. So I opened the restaurant/fish market without any restaurant experience—I hired on people who knew what they were doing. And the restaurant just took off. Having the farm allows us to be really reasonable with a lot of our products. Just having a lot of fresh local food, vegetables from local farms. I was on the phone with a venison farmer this morning, and of course locally caught seafood...I mean cod, we go through so much cod here, with the calamari and the scallops people really enjoy it. Getting product fresh and preparing fresh makes a big difference. It's how people like to eat.
Can you take us through the process of farm-raising oysters? At a hatchery they mix male and female gametes, which meet to form a larvae. That fertilized larvae attaches on to a substrate. What they find is a good substrate is they grind up pieces of clam shell. At that point I purchase the seed. It's one millimeter, a little tiny oyster. We put them in a controlled nursery system that boosts growth. Once they're around a half inch, we take them out to the farm; it's seven acres of wading depth in an inlet.
It's similar to a terrestrial farm, but instead of rows of corn we have rows of oysters. Different sections have different size classes, different year classes. They're in these sturdy plastic mesh bags, they're grow-out bags. We put them in the bags and then on a rack system. It's a combination that is unique to our farm. Everybody uses a different grow-out technique and this is one we've developed over the years.
What are the unique qualities of your oysters? I'm not a chef; I'm an oyster farmer so I'm not really great with all the verbage, but they've been described as crisp and briny with a sweet finish. A lot of the Northeast oysters are described as being briny because the waters here are so high in salinity. But we all grow the same species of oyster in the Northeast.
How did you get started in shellfish farming? I started digging shellfish in junior high and then scuba diving for them. I went away to school to study marine biology, but I came back to Rhode Island and studied at the University of Rhode Island. I took an aquaculture course and changed my major to aquaculture. When I finished my undergrad I got a grant from the Reed Initiative and that's when I applied for my farm. It was a 1.3 acre lease, and I had the aquaculture education grant where I would take students out to the farm to increase understanding of aquaculture.
What was that like? It was successful; we reached a lot of students and adults in the public. I think we made an impact on how people receive the industry. It's an environmentally friendly industry that contributes to economic growth, but has a lot of benefits on top of that. Its sustainable agriculture.
That's something that people might not want&mdash to look out in their water and see someone farming. But when it comes down to it, if it's done properly it's non-intrusive and it really benefits the environment, individuals and the economy. It has a huge potential in developing countries where population growth is going on. They have these huge bodies of water that in the U.S. we might use for jet-skiing or sailing, but in other countries they would certainly sacrifice anything like that for an economic benefit.
So you see a bright future for aquaculture? The thing about aquaculture is that its relatively new. If you think about industrialized agriculture, it's been going on for hundreds of years. Industrialized aquaculture, which is agriculture, its just underwater farming, it's only been going on for about 20 years. We have a lot to learn and there is a long way to go, but the process to me is what's fun.