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Standing on the plywood deck of a 22-foot aluminum pontoon boat, Jules Opton-Himmel surveys his domain. “This is my farm,” says the Yale forestry school grad, sweeping his arm over a pristine expanse of water stretching 300 yards from a red and green buoy to a white buoy on which a rumpled seagull perches. The 31-year-old proprietor of Walrus & Carpenter Oysters has spent the past three years tending half a million bivalves in the swift-flowing, nutrient-rich tides of Rhode Island’s Ninigret Pond, a shallow body of brackish water separated by a hundred yards of sand and scrub from the Atlantic Ocean. The oysters grow in about two years from seeds smaller than a dime to meaty, hard-shelled adults that fetch up to 85¢ a piece wholesale and retail for as much as $3 on the half shell in high-end oyster bars and restaurants.
Since the wild oyster beds of the U.S. East Coast were devastated by outbreaks of the MSX parasite starting in the 1990s, the emergence of new breeds of disease-resistant shellfish have led to a revival of small-scale oyster farming. The resurgence has been spurred by a growing community of foodies who pride themselves on being able to tell a Chesapeake Bay Barcat from a Charlestown Pond East Beach Blonde.
Each oyster has its own “meroir,” says Michael Cressotti, corporate chef at Manhattan’s three Mermaid Inn restaurants, which sold just over 1 million oysters last year, up 25 percent from 2010. “You’re tasting the region and salinity of the water, just like the terroir of a wine, where you can taste the soil and the grapes.”
Barriers to entry for would-be oyster farmers are few. Leases go for less than $200 an acre on publicly owned shoreline in the Northeast, says Bob Rheault, a marine biologist who runs a lobbying group for East Coast shellfish farmers. Laboratory-spawned seed costs about $5,000 to $10,000 a year, while the perforated PVC pouches that hold the oysters and the racks that anchor them to the sea floor run a few thousand dollars an acre. The rest is sweat equity. The average oyster is handled 10 times before it gets to market, and days on the ponds can reach 14 hours. Farmers must tend the racks to remove seaweed and algae that can choke off the flow of water, and they need to patrol for natural predators such as crabs. Though only about half of the crop makes it to market, the payoff can be rich. Opton-Himmel estimates his three acres will yield 250,000 oysters this year, a harvest worth more than $200,000.
The oyster renaissance would not have been possible without government regulation, in particular the Clean Water Act, which over the past few decades has erased much of the pollution that parasites and bacteria deadly to oysters thrive on. Shellfish valued at $113 million were farmed on the East Coast in the 2010-11 growing season, Rheault says, up from $93 million in 2009. About 40 percent of that came from oysters, with clams and mussels making up the rest. Connecticut was the largest shellfish farming state, producing 29 percent of the harvest. Virginia followed with 25 percent, and Rhode Island accounted for some 2 percent, worth about $3 million, according to the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council.
Virginia and Louisiana produce the bulk of the commercial oyster supply: the stuff sold by the gallon for frying and stews. But the real money is in live oysters, shucked by hand and served on the half shell. Diners in Boston and Chicago want larger oysters, while New Yorkers prefer their shellfish petite, a better business proposition for growers. “If I can get the same price for a 3-inch oyster as for a 5-inch oyster, but a year earlier with that much less risk, it’s a wonderful thing,” says Rheault, who farmed 17 acres of oysters before packing up his waders three years ago. “It’s the greatest job in the world in the summer,” he says. “And then in February, when you are 55 years old and standing in an open skiff and you come home and everything hurts because you spent the whole day busting ice, it isn’t.”
Colby Doyan shucks shellfish at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, a high-end fish shack near Ninigret Pond that serves nine local varieties. The 20-year-old college student is pondering names for the farm he wants to start. He’s partial to “Quanty Queens,” while an older customer says she likes the sound of “Colby’s Clams.”
“The catchier the name, the more selling power,” says Mermaid Inn’s Cressotti, who believes there’s room for more local suppliers as long as they can reliably deliver 500 oysters a week. Mermaid Inn has developed an iPhone app called Oysterpedia that lets diners consult tasting notes for more than 150 varieties. The fashion today is for mixed plates, so diners can try several breeds. “The days of having just a plate of Malpeques are over,” he says, referring to a popular meaty oyster from Canada’s Atlantic Coast.
The bottom line: Cleaner waters and demand from foodies have helped boost East Coast oyster production by 20 percent annually.