Like planets in a long awaited alignment, a host of unique circumstances has come together that favor the success of oyster farmers. The outlook is bright for seasoned Vineyard oyster culturists who have perfected their methods. Through years of trial and error, they have paid their dues, overcome a long learning curve and are now poised to take advantage of an increasing demand for the fruits de la mer of their labors.
The national demand for oysters over the last decade or so is probably the greatest since the late 1800s, when populations of wild oysters were severely overfished to supply insatiable markets. Much of the present demand for oysters is generated by restaurant sales of fine quality single oysters that are best grown with lots of tending on private farms. Despite some dip in demand following decreased restaurant patronage after 9/11 and during the present recession, sales and production of raw oysters are up. The demand for single oysters is driven by the popularity of raw bars that are now regular features in restaurants and at celebrations. Unlike lower-priced shucked oyster meats, single oysters, served freshly shucked on the half shell, command the highest prices. They sell for about a dollar each at the seafood market and $2.50 at a restaurant. Oyster growers supply these retail outlets for 60 to 80 cents an oyster.
So what is fueling this demand? Surplus cash of the one per cent? That may be part of the story, but I think there is a bigger picture. Our increased appreciation and consumption of raw oysters is also the result of a food revolution sweeping the country. In recent years, America’s collective palate has experienced a dramatic awakening. Our taste in food has matured and become more sophisticated. Following years of consumption of mass-produced, mediocre, uniformly processed food, we hunger for the unique flavors and nuances of local and artisanal products. Likewise, a growing awareness of and concern for the health of “spaceship earth” and our fellow inhabitants has expanded the realms of morality. Political correctness now includes our choice of food and the manner in which it is produced. We are aware of our carbon footprints and vote with our forks. We want to know who our farmer is and are concerned for his welfare.
These concerns have been distilled into the Slow Food mantra of Good, Clean and Fair. When evaluated by these criteria, cultured oysters are the ideal sustainable slow food.
First, they are good. Oysters are a classic gourmet food with subtle nuances of flavor and texture especially influenced by both place of origin and method of culture. Its unique qualities have been celebrated for much of human history. Its qualities are best appreciated when consumed in its natural, raw state.
The symbolist poet Léon-Paul Fargue described eating oysters as “like kissing the sea on the lips.” Author Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides wrote oysters are “the sea made flesh.” Little wonder that visitors wanting to experience the Vineyard must have communion with raw oysters!
Second, oysters are clean. The environment must be respected and sustainable practices of farming, animal husbandry, processing, marketing and consumption should be taken into serious consideration. Every stage in the agro-industrial production chain, consumption included, should protect ecosystems and biodiversity, safeguarding the health of the consumer and the producer.
Oyster production methods are respectful of the environment. Except for the earliest hatchery stages, the culture of oysters requires no addition of feed to the environment. Because oysters are filter feeders, oyster culture actually improves the environment by improving water quality. The cages they are grown in provide structure important in providing marine habitat that enhances marine biodiversity. Vineyard oysters are produced on small local farms near consumers, so the carbon footprint of oyster farming is small as little fuel is required for transport. Further, their shells incorporate carbon dioxide, so as they grow they are carbon sinks helping to mitigate rising global CO2 levels. Also, oysters, along with all shellfish, are primary consumers low on the food chain, so they are an efficient food. I have read that one acre of mussels produce 1,000 times more protein than an acre of grass-fed beef. Oysters are nearly as efficient as mussels. They are a perfect source of protein for a crowded planet.
Third, oysters are fair. Social justice should be pursued through the creation of conditions of labor respectful of man and his rights and capable of generating adequate rewards: through the pursuit of balanced global economies, through the practice of sympathy and solidarity and through respect for cultural diversities and traditions.
Oysters are generally grown on small family farms providing the ideal labor conditions inherent in self-employment. These farms support the preservation of historic small coastal communities, preserving cultural diversity and traditions (think Menemsha!). The importance of the terroir of the product supports small artisanal production methods rather than large industrial operations.
Perhaps most important, these oyster culturists and their water-based farms continue the long Vineyard tradition of earning a living from the waters that surround us. While their daily pursuits may lack the drama and excitement of the whalers from our past, their pursuit of sustainable food production is as challenging as harpooning any leviathan and a far more relevant catch in our modern day. Our Island culture and sense of place have been shaped by our historical connections to the sea. Maintaining our unique Island home in a world where the prevailing tide pushes us in the direction of a uniform culture of sameness will require a strong mooring to our maritime identities. These water farmers are strong links in the chain that will keep us and our lifestyle secure. They deserve our respect and support.
Rick Karney is executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.