Oysters. They are as much a part of the Island culture as the Campground cottages or the traffic at Five Corners, or Morning Glory corn in August. Island native or visitor, you’ve probably eaten at least one oyster, if not hundreds.
The question is, Have you eaten them on the beach, immediately after harvesting them?
Last Friday, my friend Ralph Peckham arranged for me to meet with Edgartown shellfish constable Rob Morrison and deputy shellfish constable Julie Pringle to talk about oysters, and get a hands-on look at a few of their oyster cages.
We met near Bend in the Road Beach and geared up. The day was partly cloudy and cold — as in 28° at 1 pm, which was low tide. We layered up in waders, jackets, floatation devices, hats, hoods, and waterproof gloves. The air was so cold I had to keep switching out pens, as the ink was freezing. I normally hate cold weather, avoid it like the plague (or COVID), but I’m going to admit this now: I had so much fun!
But I get ahead of myself.
Rob, who has been with Edgartown shellfish department for 12 years, and the constable for the past two years, motored us across Sengekontacket Pond, home to hundreds of thousands of oysters. Ironically, “oysters don’t naturally grow in Senge. They are part of a nitrogen remediation effort,” said Rob. “Oysters filter the most water. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day.”
Each year, Edgartown shellfish buys 600,000 oyster seeds, or spat, from Muscongus Bay Aquaculture in Maine. All of those tiny seeds fit inside your basic coffee can, according to Rob. The seeds grow in a tidal upweller, which keeps them safe and allows plankton-rich ocean water to be pumped in and flow out.
“The seeds are about 1½ millimeters when we get them in June. From August to October, we move the oysters, now about an inch, into bottom cages in Senge. They grow for one year in cages, until they are about two inches,” said Rob.
As the oysters mature, they are moved into different cages. The cages and bags have different width spacing, depending on the size of the young oysters.
Rob maneuvered his boat near one of the last cages of the season, reserved for a donation they will be making to the town’s senior center before Christmas.
Julie secured the large cage on a winch, and lifted it out of the water. The cage holds trays of growing oysters. Julie pulled one of the trays out, and Ralph opened it up to show me all the beautiful oysters. As I stared in awe into the tray, I marveled at how many gallons of water each oyster had filtered in the past year and a half. They’ve been cleaning up Senge at the same time they’ve been growing into someone’s Christmas delicacy. Rather amazing!
While the oysters were lowered back to the bottom of Senge, Rob explained the normal process for year-old oysters: “After 12 to 14 months of growth, we plant the oysters in six different locations. They are about two inches in length when we empty the cages.”
Planting oysters does not require any digging. The cages are emptied into select locations, and the oysters gently fall to the sandy bottom, and continue growing and filtering water until something or someone eats them. Eating the oysters is actually a necessary part of nitrogen remediation. “You have to remove the oysters from the water to remove the nitrogen,” said Rob.
The four of us were quite happy to do our part and remove some nitrogen from Senge. One of the planting locations for Edgartown’s oysters is the family beach near Big Bridge. Rob drove our boat close to the beach, and anchored us. The four of us got into the water, and Julie passed out rakes, wire floatation baskets, and a viewfinder, all of which you will need to harvest your own oysters.
It didn’t take us long to find a bunch of mature oysters. Rob pulled a measuring gauge from his pocket and began sorting through our catch. A keeper oyster must be at least three inches in length. In Edgartown, a recreational permitholder is allowed a half-bushel a week. We had more than enough for an impromptu raw bar, and dinner later.
While we motored back to Rob’s mooring, I asked him how many of the 600,000 seeds they purchase live to adulthood. “At least 75 percent make it. We don’t see much mortality. Oysters are tough to kill, and they grow fast,” Rob said. “Oysters live a long time if nothing eats them.”
Who enjoys eating oysters beyond Vineyarders? The Oyster Drill Snail is an aggressive little gastropod whose hard mouthpiece drills through the oyster’s shells. Starfish and conch also enjoy oysters.
After Rob and Ralph secured the boat, Julie brought our basket of oysters over to Rob’s truck. He took out an oyster knife, and asked who was hungry.
True confession: I’m not a lover of oysters. That said, I was not going to pass up a chance to taste the freshest oysters of my life. When I tell you these oysters were impeccable, I’m telling you Mother Nature had chilled them perfectly. The cold, briny oyster liquor was the best I’d ever tasted.
If you’re planning to prepare a Feast of Seven Fishes this Christmas, freshly harvested Vineyard oysters would make the best first course. Honestly, for those who love oysters, what could be better?
“Oysters are a superfood,” said Rob. “They boost your immune system. They are full of selenium, zinc, and protein. They’re really healthy.”
If you want to harvest your oysters, and you definitely should, Rob cautioned, “Do not leave oysters in a bucket of standing water. They will suck all the oxygen out of the water and die. The surest way to kill oysters is to leave them in a bucket of water.”
It’s plenty cold in the winter to harvest your oysters and bring them home without a cooler. In the summer, Rob said, you have to put them on ice as soon as you harvest them. Another plus to oysters is that you don’t have to eat them right away. “Oysters will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. Put them cup side up with a damp cloth over them,” said Rob.
Oysters are a fabulous local food source that most people can harvest for themselves. The oyster season for recreational permits is year-round. In 2023, Edgartown sold 1,100 recreational permits, and about 100 commercial permits. The commercial season is much shorter. Rob hasn’t set dates yet for 2024, but thinks the commercial season will be in March.
Before you head out to harvest your oysters, buy your permit and check out each town’s regulations. Here are the town website links:
- Aquinnah: bit.ly/Aquinnah_ShellfishInfo
- Chilmark: chilmarkma.gov/shellfish-department
- Edgartown: bit.ly/Edgartown_ShellfishInfo
- Oak Bluffs: bit.ly/OB_ShellfishInfo
- West Tisbury: https://bit.ly/WT_ShellfishInfo
I hope to see you on the beach — in many layers — or maybe at your favorite raw bar.