The first-ever Martha’s Vineyard Oyster Fest brought hundreds of shellfish lovers to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and several other venues during a three-day celebration of sustainable seafood.
There were more than enough oysters (and bottles of wine) to go around at the main event at the museum, which featured hands-on education by local experts, dozens of oyster farmers, wineries, and breweries.
A live cooking demonstration with Chefs Joe Monteiro, Spring Sheldon, Jenny DeVivo, Deon Thomas, and more brought the VIP audience into the action, and showed festivalgoers all the different ways to cook and prepare oysters, conch, and other shellfish.
Inside the museum, a new exhibition that debuted during the festival, called “Stories on the Half Shell,” illustrates the immense love of oysters and other bivalves that Islanders share — whether it’s farmers, biologists, cooks, or enthusiasts.
In the museum courtyard, kids and families danced to various local musicians, and enjoyed food from the Goldie’s Rotisserie and El Gato Grande food trucks.
Apart from celebrating the already strong connection that people on the Vineyard have to oysters and all shellfish, Oyster Fest was focused on promoting knowledge and awareness of the benefits that come from supporting the local fishery.
Emma Green-Beach, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, said the group has always wanted to take after other coastal communities and hold an oyster fest.
But it wasn’t until the organization partnered with Nevette Previd, founder of Farm. Field. Sea., that the vision became reality.
“She made it happen, but it was really one big collective effort, and all the pieces kind of just fell together,” Green-Beach said.
For Green-Beach, one core goal of the event is to teach people about oysters and why they are beneficial, not only as a healthy and sustainable food that’s good for the local economy, but as a boon to our oceans and estuaries.
“In the end, we want people to eat more oysters and more shellfish, because there are so many amazing reasons to,” Green-Beach said. “Of course, you can buy them from the restaurants. But you can also buy them at the seafood markets — bring them home and learn how to shuck them.”
According to Green-Beach, shellfishing has always been a major part of her life, even as a child growing up. She said that for many families on the Island, going out on the water and catching oysters and other shellfish is a livelihood as well as a passion. “It’s all so that people will continue to go out into the water and harvest shellfish and have that experience with their family. That’s what I was raised with, and that’s why I work here,” she said.
Under a tent near the front of the museum, Green-Beach demonstrated to passersby how shellfish are propagated by the shellfish group, and how animals like oysters clear our waters through filtration.
Along with benefiting the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, part of the proceeds from the event will go toward the shellfish group’s oyster habitat restoration and shell recycling program.
“We are recycling so much shell from this event,” Green-Beach said. She explained that all the shucked shells from the festival will provide substrate for the hatchery to grow more oysters. Clean shells are also dumped into the Edgartown and Tisbury Great Ponds to serve as a hard layer of material for baby shellfish to bind to, along with providing a necessary calcium source and a buffer against ocean acidification.
“Because of the pandemic, we collected way less shells the past two years because the restaurants haven’t been running at full capacity. The shell from this event will give us enough to complete our projects for next season,” Green-Beach said.
Previd told The Times in a phone conversation that she was pleased with the turnout at the event, and the fun yet educational dynamic that was made possible by the expansive museum campus, along with all the participants. “We really tried to fuse purpose and pleasure, and embrace the idea that you are coming to an event because you want to be social and celebrate, but you also have the opportunity to learn something about food and about the Vineyard,” Previd said.
With 16,000 oysters consumed at the event, Previd said, she believes the event provided that combined experience in spades.
She gave a shout-out to co-producer of the festival and owner of Vintage MV Wine and Spirits John Clift, along with the rest of the planning and production team that made the event a success.
“Everyone really came through to make it a really special and unique experience,” Previd said. “These kinds of festivals are great, but they have needed a reinvention. The consumer wants to be part of the story and part of the action, and I think our format satisfied that.”
Underneath the VIP tent, Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, stood with a shucking knife in hand, handing out oysters to hungry festivalgoers.
Rheault, who represents 1,500 shellfish farms from Maine to Florida, also happens to have a house on the Vineyard.
“When I heard about the Oyster Festival a few years ago, I volunteered to help out,” Rheault said. “Of course, last year was canceled because of COVID, so I’m really happy we were able to get back to the face-to-face festivals again.”
Rheault highlighted the fact that although the industry produces about $175 million worth of shellfish each year, 85 percent of contributing farms have fewer than five employees.
“These are really hard-working, dedicated farmers. I have the best job in the world because I represent all these farmers, who are so proud of their product,” Rheault said. “We have the great knowledge that we are not only producing the most sustainable protein on the planet, but our crops actually benefit the environment because they clean the water and provide a habitat for juvenile fish.”
For Rheault, encouraging folks to farm and eat fresh shellfish is part and parcel of his goal to bolster the markets and fuel a vital industry for the Vineyard and all coastal communities.
“It’s always very satisfying when I get someone to try their very first raw oyster, and you see this smile shoot across their face. You know you have a customer for life,” Rheault said.
Paul Bagnall, president of the shellfish group, stood alongside Rheault as the two went about shucking.
“I’m basically here to help out the shellfish group, and I know how to open clams,” Bagnall laughed, as he attributed the real heavy lifting to his deputies, who caught the clams.
Bagnall said he was happy to see such a strong turnout at the event, especially because of the hit oysters and the shellfish industry in general took during COVID, with many restaurants and raw bars limiting hours and stock.
“People need to see that you can eat oysters and other clams safely, they’re accessible, and the fishery is such a big part of the Island economy,” Bagnall said. He noted that the recreational oyster fishery is just as important for the seasonal tourist economy as the commercial fishery on-Island.
“People call and ask me what’s going to be open in August, because that’s their vacation time and they want to make sure they can go out on the water,” Bagnall said. “It’s bringing your kids with you, getting out on the water with your family, and getting some really good food. It’s a big part of the sense of place for people here on the Vineyard.”