Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rhode Island: Matunuck Oyster Bar (Part 1)

"We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about - farming replacing hunting."
--Jacques Yves Cousteau

As I've mentioned multiple times before, the U.S. imports approximately 91% of the seafood that is consumed. That is an astounding statistic and it is imperative that we consume much more domestic seafood, for numerous reasons which I have also repeated on this blog. In addition, about 50% of the seafood we consume is from aquaculture, despite the fact that aquaculture often receives a bad rap. Some people outright dismiss farmed raised seafood, generally based on outdated information, and the media doesn't help, preferring to print scare stories about the dangers of aquaculture, rather than discussing the many success stories.

In fact, aquaculture has been improving for years, and is continuing to work towards greater sustainability. And it has improved far more than the horrendous factory farms often raising chickens, pigs, and cattle. It is bizarre to hear people tell me they won't eat farmed salmon, but they will still eat pork from factory farms without any issue. It is largely due to ignorance and misinformation of the actual facts.

In 2012, the U.S. produced about 594 million pounds of aquaculture seafood, both freshwater and marine, valued at about $1.2 billion. We have seen a steady growth in aquaculture since 2007, roughly 8% each year. However, the volume of aquaculture is only about 6% of the wild catch so there is much room for growth. The top U.S. marine aquaculture species by volume is Atlantic salmon with oysters as a close second. By value though, oysters take the top spot with salmon in second. Oysters are very sustainable and as they are filter feeders, they actually enhance the waters. There is no reason why we shouldn't increase oyster production in the U.S.

"Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods. The stay in bed all day and night. They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them."
--Hector Bolitho

In Rhode Island, their top aquaculture product is oysters and the 2015 Annual Status Report of the Coastal Resources Management Council provided some interesting statistics concerning aquaculture in that state. There are now 61 aquaculture farms, up from 55, and the total area under cultivation is about 241 acres, a 17% increase from the prior year. The number of aquaculture farm workers also increased 20% from 142 to 171. About 8.2 million oysters were sold for consumption, an increase of 18% since 2013. Only about 47,000 Hard Clams were sold while the Blue Mussel harvest was nearly 16,000 pounds. It is great to see such growth.

Recently, I was invited on a media day-trip to southern Rhode Island, a culinary exploration, and our primary destination was the Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingston. Matunuck is both an oyster farm and restaurant, and we got to tour the fascinating farm as well as enjoy a delicious lunch of seafood specialities, including raw oysters. If you enjoy seafood, or are concerned about sustainability, you should tour an oyster farm, to get educated about its operations. And Matunuck runs free public tours so this presents an excellent opportunity to see how oysters (and scallops) are raised.

Our guide was Perry Raso, the owner of Matunuck, who was down-to-earth, passionate about aquaculture and clearly a very hard worker. He never seemed to slow down and even mentioned offhand that on his vacations, he generally is traveling to other places to help them establish oyster farms. He comes across as humble and sincere, answering all of your questions quite freely. In addition, he lives on the property, in a 300 year old house which is allegedly haunted and which Perry claims is very "creepy."

When Perry was 12 years old, he used to dig littlenecks in Point Judith Pond, and this was the start of his love for the ocean and seafood. He would continue in the following years to collect seafood, whether eel trapping or scuba diving for steamers. He eventually earned a Masters degree in Aquaculture & Fisheries Technology from URI and did some teaching. In 2002, his interests led to him establishing the Matunuck Oyster Farm in Potter Pond (formerly known as Fish Pond), a saltwater pond, and eventually starting a restaurant in 2009. Interestingly, Perry stated that he "doesn't do what he loves but it is simply the best way he knows to make a living."

Potter Pond, which extends about 3/4 of a mile, is the only inlet that leads into an estuary and about 6.9 acres are cultivated for seafood, including oysters, little neck clams and most recently, scallops. Perry spent a little time discussing the benefits of aquaculture and how shellfish are sustainable. He also explained some of the reasons why Potter Pond worked so well, such as that its natural protections prevent the waters from being subjected to many disruptive waves, which could adversely affect the oyster farms.

Perry purchased 20 million oyster seeds from a hatchery, noting that when the water temperature rises to a certain degree, oysters breed and the female oyster can release as many as 8 million eggs. Oysters are capable of changing sex, even multiple times, during their lifetime though over 90% of oysters, after three years, are female. Perry grows the seeds in mesh bags which can hold about 2000 oysters. The seeds will grow for about 2-3 years before they can be harvested. Each year, they harvest about 1.2 million oysters, about 15% of the total oyster production in Rhode Island, and they continue to expand and grow, even selling some oyster seeds to others.

In the oyster farm, there is some gear which is set in place while others are floating, and generally, each section has 42 rows with 100 bags each. They grow Matunuck Oysters as well as Potter Moons, with the Matunuck being sweeter while the Potter's tend to be more briny. About 10%-15% of their production constitute Potter Moons, which grow on the sea floor. They harvest to order and use the empty shells for restoration projects with the Nature Conservancy.

A view of the back of the restaurant from the boat which takes you on a tour of the oyster farm.

The greatest challenge that Perry faces with his farm is trying to increase the amount of oysters. He needs to deal with their high mortality rates, parasites and predators, including starfish and mud crabs.

Once we reached one of the farming spots, Perry jumped into the water to show us the mesh bags and oysters. This picture gives a good perspective of the size of the mesh bags.

These were tiny oysters that he took out of the bag.

And a much closer view of one of the growing oysters.

These are some of the floating gear bags.

Again, the size of the bags is the same though these seem to have more vegetation atop the bags.

Perry is also cultivating Bay Scallops, having served the first ones at his restaurant in March.  Despite the high popularity of scallops, their cultivation hasn't yet caught on in Rhode Island and Perry is a pioneer in this respect. However, he notes that scallop farming is more difficult than oysters as the scallops are more finicky and don't winter well. With more experience and experimentation, he should be able to produce more scallops and maybe some other Rhode Island aquaculture operations will start raising scallops too.

These are some of the growing scallops.

This machine sorts the oysters by size, kind of like how a coin machine operates to separate dimes from nickels and quarters.

Crates of sorted oysters.

In addition to the shellfish farms, Perry also started an organic vegetable and fruit farm about 4 years ago. The produce is mostly used in his restaurant.

You'll find a variety of produce being grown, including peas, strawberries, kale, tomatoes, rainbow chard, beets, spinach, asparagus and more.

Many thanks to Perry for taking the time to show us his oyster and scallops farms, and best wishes for the future. It was a fascinating and informative tour and highly recommended to anyone visiting Rhode Island. Understanding the source of your food is beneficial and learning the benefits of aquaculture is also beneficial.

Eat more domestic Seafood! Eat more Oysters!

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