The very cool and crucial life of an oyster


Tuesday morning I was at Edgartown Lighthouse with members of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association. We were there to teach and help the seventh graders from the Edgartown School learn how to fish. While we waited, one of the guys mentioned getting some shellfish for our MVSA BBQ this weekend. 

“I’ll help rake or dig them up, but I’m not eating them,” I said. 

I know. I know. If you’re rolling your eyes, so were my friends.

It’s probably a sin to live on the Island and not eat shellfish. I do enjoy crustaceans, just not a fan of consuming the somewhat slimy bivalves. But, and this is super-important, I am a huge fan of oysters. 

Oysters are volunteers extraordinaire. I’m serious. Those mighty bivalves not only provide humans with a protein-rich meal, but they clean our ponds and help to keep the waters healthy. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing harmful nitrogen. How can we not love oysters?

Last fall I spent an afternoon in Sengekontacket Pond with Rob Morrison, Julie Pringle, and Ralph Peckham of the Edgartown shellfish department. I discovered how awesomely cool oysters are, and I fell in love with them. When Julie texted me a couple of weeks ago and mentioned the oyster seeds had arrived, and asked if I wanted to go out to the tidal upweller, I practically shouted from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, “Yes, please!”

Last Wednesday, I met Rob, Julie, and Ralph at Sengekontacket. We motored across the pond to the tidal upweller, which is an immersed incubator of sorts for the baby oysters, or spat. 

The oyster spat, all 500,000 of them, arrived by overnight delivery on Friday, May 24. Julie spent about 20 minutes acclimating them from their shipping cooler to the tidal upweller. The baby oysters are only 1½ millimeters. For perspective, a standard toothpick is about 1½ millimeters thick. Think minuscule. 

The babies are divided into four 740-micron mesh boxes with about 125,000 oysters in each. “At 740 micrometers, the baby oysters won’t go through the mesh even at their tiniest,” said Julie.

“They will stay in the 740 box for about three weeks this year, because we got them earlier than usual, the water was cooler, and there wasn’t as much food for them,” said Rob.

The baby oysters are eating tidal plankton and algae. And get this, oysters and scallops eat different algae. Rather efficient little creatures. They keep getting cooler the more I learn. 

In a few weeks, the babies will be separated into eight 1,410-micron boxes, with about 62,500 oysters in each. “They’ll spend a couple of weeks in the 1,410. They grow faster as the water gets warmer,” said Julie.

All of these micron mesh boxes sit in the tidal upweller. Water and plankton filter through the boxes, providing the perfect safe habitat. As the babies continue to grow, they’ll be separated two additional times into ⅛-inch micron mesh boxes and ¼-inch micron mesh boxes. 

I asked Rob how many of the 500,000 they lose during the growing process. “We’ve seen healthy growth with not much mortality,” said Rob. “The seed we get has genetics that are resistant to oyster diseases.” 

The baby oysters also get a lot of attention. Rob and Julie clean the boxes every week, and they make sure the oysters have plenty of space during all their growing stages. “The more room you give them and the more room they have, they can filter and grow evenly,” said Rob.

When they finished taking care of the babies, Rob asked if I wanted to go with them to plant last year’s oysters. Such a question!

Rob motored us to a floating dock with about 100 cages, filled with about 5,000 oysters each. Julie had pulled them all out of the water the day before, allowing them to air-dry. Air-drying helps to remove all the algae and critters from the cages, which makes handling them easier. Rob, Julie, and Ralph emptied a few cages into bins, and we drove toward the bridge. 

“Planting is really technical,” Rob joked as he positioned a bin on the edge of the boat and shook it gently, allowing the oysters to fall overboard into the pond. If only planting my vegetable garden was that easy. Mind you, it will take them about a month to plant all the oysters.

“The goal is to have these oysters be legal by the end of summer,” said Rob. Legal is 3 inches.

If you are planning to harvest oysters in Edgartown this year, you’ll need a permit, an oyster gauge, and a cooler with ice that must be on the beach or in your boat. You can purchase your permit in person at the Edgartown Town Hall on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm, or online at

You can only go shellfishing once a week, with a recreational limit of half a bushel. Your weekly half-bushel can be all oysters, or a mix of shellfish. Before you start raking up your oysters, be sure to read all the posted closure notices at the local ponds. You can also sign up for text alerts at 877-550-8627. Text “shellfish.”

The bass are still plentiful. I finally caught a keeper bass, just in time for a dinner party with friends. The bluefish have finally made a significant appearance. Let’s hope they’re here to stay. I’m leaving to go fishing as soon as I hit send on this column, to see if yesterday’s bluefish are still feeding on the same tide.

I hope to see you on the beach, whether we’re collecting old oyster shells, harvesting for ourselves or friends, or casting a line.