The morning sun is still level with the crest of each wave, yet the waters around Martha’s Vineyard are already flourishing with activity. Amongst the many watermen beginning the day at sea is Ryan Smith, a seasoned oyster farmer who owns and operates Signature Oysters near Edgartown. Ryan is seated at the helm of his 24-foot Carolina Skiff, lifting bulky cages from the ocean’s floor so he can go through the bags of oysters inside and check for barnacles.
“You have to be out here every single day, or you won’t get a good oyster,” Ryan says in his usual buoyant tone. “It’s like taking care of a giant garden – similar to anything else on the land.”
The son of a commercial fisherman, Ryan grew up on the island and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving. After a few years of working with fish, he started his own oyster farm in Katama Bay in 2006 and has since become an integral part of Martha’s Vineyard’s blossoming oyster production.
“Oysters are like wine,” Ryan says. “They taste different everywhere. The oysters from Katama Bay have nice, creamy meat inside of them and thick shells so they are easy to open. They taste delicious.”
The reason, he says, has a lot to do with Martha’s Vineyard’s unique coastal setting. The bay is more exposed to the open sea than many other places along the coast, so the water is very clean and experiences tides that are crucial to growing a strong oyster. The floor of the bay is also firmer – a plus for oyster farmers who worry about mud getting into the shellfish.
As most oyster lovers can attest, the taste (as well as look and texture) of the shellfish can vary greatly based on where they come from. Ryan’s primary buyer, Pangea Shellfish Company, actually carries 70 different varieties of oysters, many of which have a distinct flavor and appearance. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, the oysters are very sweet.
Ryan gets the oysters when each one is about the size of a grain of sand, so a million oyster seeds would only take up the space of a softball. After a few months in upwellers, the miniature oysters are placed inside bags (which don’t limit the water flow) and into wire cages that protect them from predators and keep them raised off of the ground. As they grow, they will have to be relocated to new cages because too many oysters in close proximity will impede water flow.
Fourteen months to two years later, the oysters each have a cup of about three or four inches and are ready to be sold, but Ryan prefers to wait a little longer until the shells thicken. The action of the waves in Katama Bay will actually toughen up the oysters and strengthen their muscles.
“It’s really rewarding when you work on something and then go to pick it up and can’t believe how big it is,” Ryan says. “If you work hard, they look great, and I love it.” (Plus, he admits, “My office is out on the water, and I get to drive around in my boat all day.”)
There’s also a certain visual appeal to growing the oysters. The outside of an oyster shell tends to be gray, and the inside is a pearly white, but the conditions in which the oyster was raised can add different hues of brown, blue, and purple. The oysters that Ryan pulls from Katama Bay have gray and brown tones as well as a streak of solid black that tends to disappear as the bivalves mature.
When the oysters are all up to size, Ryan gathers them himself and places them in coolers of ice on the boat, then into a walk-in cooler, and the very next morning he hops the first ferry boat to the mainland in a refrigerated truck. The oysters are always cool during the brief journey so they are as fresh as possible when consumers pick them up at Pangea Shellfish Company in the Boston Seaport District.
But locals and visitors to Martha’s Vineyard can enjoy Signature Oysters right on the island too, and as Ryan says, there’s nothing like the buzz of summertime on Martha’s Vineyard. Whilst wandering the quaint streets and sandy stretches of beach, stop into Atria in downtown Edgartown or The Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven. The plump Katama Bay oysters are pleasantly briny and a little sweet, and the result is… well, you’ll just have to try them.
Featured Image Courtesy of Pangea Shellfish Company