On a combined 72 acres of the bay that they lease from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Island Creek has 12 acres), the 10 farmers who make up the Island Creek collective grow some of the most desirable mollusks in the U.S. dining world, renowned for their briny flavor with vegetal overtones and a hint of sweetness. From March through December, the harbor just off the shore is dotted with a cluster of Island Creek’s Oyster Plexes where workers cull their harvest (sort the oysters by size and shape), rinse them off and count them into bags. It can be hard, sometimes tedious work, but the men and women of Island Creek, many of whom grew up in this town, share a passion for the water and the lifestyle that makes it all worthwhile. These new American farmers are justifiably proud of the uniformly outstanding oysters they cultivate year after year after year.
It took local boy and company founder Skip Bennett nearly 20 years to become an overnight success. The son of a lobsterman, he left his small coastal town to attend college in the mid 1980s. He returned home after graduation, “just for the summer,” before heading to New York to begin a career in finance. And he never left.
Tall and tanned, with smile lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes, Bennett is the quintessential coastal New Englander. Ancestors on both sides of his family arrived here on the Mayflower. He spent his first summer home after college out on the bay, digging for mussels—which made him realize he could never be happy sitting behind a desk.
Bennett learned about the Aquacultural Research Corporation (ARC), on nearby Cape Cod. The first commercial hatchery on the east coast, ARC was creating shellfish seed. Bennett became friendly with its founder, Dick Kraus, and in 1992, using ARC seed, he began to farm clams in Duxbury Bay. When he started, everyone in town thought he was nuts. But he was relatively successful—until three years into the project, when QPX disease (the acronym stands for Quahog Parasite Unknown) wiped out his entire crop.
That might have been a good time to take up that finance career. But Bennett dug in. He already had all the shell-fishing equipment and he loved working on the water. So he decided to grow oysters. Despite the fact that they don’t grow naturally in Duxbury Bay because the water is too cold for them to spawn; but its temperature, salinity and algae mix make it ideal for them to grow.
Forty miles south of Boston, Duxbury Bay has a 10-foot tide swing and nearly constant current bringing water in from Cape Cod Bay. The prevailing wind comes from the southwest, washing warm surface waters out pulling cold, very salty water up from the bottom. With this constant flow, even on the hottest days of summer, water in the bay can be 65 to 67°F.
When Bennett planted his first oyster crop, in 1995, he was kind of flying blind. There was no handbook to rely on for guidance. And back in the early 1990s the internet wasn’t much help, either. Neither Google nor YouTube had entered the scene yet. The aquaculturist has noted that he “killed a lot of oysters” in his start-up phase.
After he had been experimenting for a few years, Don Merry, Christian Horne and his father, Bill, joined Bennett. Merry was an old friend from Duxbury. Horne grew up farming oysters with his family in Freeport, Maine. Bill Bennett sold his lobster boat and turned to full-time oystering. By September 2001 the group had its first successful oyster crop.
And then the bottom fell out. After 9/11, oysters, and dining out, were among the last things people were thinking about. But Skip Bennett had a harbor full of really tasty oysters to sell. So he got a list of the top 15 chefs in the country and started making phone calls. Celebrated names like Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York started buying Island Creek oysters. To this day, Thomas Keller uses only Island Creeks in his iconic dish, Oysters and Pearls, at Per Se and The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California.
Closer to home, Bennett loaded a pickup truck and drove crates of mollusks to the Boston area’s favorite spots. Soon the farmers couldn’t harvest quickly enough to keep up with demand. Chefs told Bennett they would take whatever he could bring them.
Oysters are affected by their environment and the seasons. Their flavor is determined by the saltiness of the water they grow in and the phytoplankton they eat; the texture is affected by water temperature. Cold-water oysters, like Island Creeks, tend to be firmer and brinier than, say, Gulf oysters.
Phytoplankton blooms in the spring, when the water is warmer, so that’s when oysters start their most intense feeding. In most locations, they spawn in summer when the water temperature is highest. The algae fade away in the fall and are gone by winter. Like land animals that stock up for hibernation, oysters gorge during the fall, building up on glycogen and amino acids. This makes them sweeter, so fall is generally considered the ideal time to consume oysters. But the idea of only eating them during months ending in ‘R,’ which came about before the time of refrigeration, is no longer valid. Oysters are now harvested year-round and can be eaten any time, as long as they have been handled properly.
Beyond the environmental influences, the hand of the farmer plays an important role in the final product. Island Creek grows its oysters from seed—and since 2015 even creates seed—monitoring their growth and doing everything possible, within the vagaries of nature, to ensure a delicious end product.
When the seeds are about the size of a pepper flake, they are placed in upwellers (underwater silos, below piers, where water is continuously pumped over the oysters), where they double in size every day. Six months later, when they are about 1/4 inch, Island Creek’s crew sets the oysters in the mud, where they grow for a year, until they are slightly over three inches. Their life at the bottom of the bay gives them a rough-and-tumbled look with deep flutes and round cups.
Reflecting the subtleties of location and technique, Island Creek has developed two additional varieties, Row 34 and Aunt Dotty’s oysters. Row 34s grow in raised trays 18 inches off the ocean floor, in the part of the farm that is closest to the mouth of the bay. Row 34s are more delicate than Island Creeks. They have more of a teardrop shape with a shallower cup. The meat is a different texture with a more earthy flavor. Named for Bennett’s aunt, the Aunt Dotty’s are planted on plastic trays that are set on the tidal flats in the mouth of Plymouth Bay (Plymouth is the town next to Duxbury). They take about three years to grow. Bennett pulls them out of the water every winter, storing them in his root cellar so they don’t freeze, and returns them to the flats in April. Aunt Dotty’s have a different shape than either Island Creeks or Row 34s because they move around in the water more than either variety; and they have a different flavor profile due to the composition of algae that floats at the top of the water. They are rich and sweet, lightly briny with a mineral finish.
Because the mollusks are such naturals at cleaning the environment, and growing them adds nothing but the animals to it, oyster farming is one of the most sustainable types of farming.
A prerequisite for a successful hatchery is the ability to grow enough food for the oysters, which eat constantly. When they are in the larval stage, oysters need a specific combination of algae. Island Creek grows seven different strains, which they get from an algae bank run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Milford, Connecticut and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, Maine.
The farmers start creating seed in January, so the oyster babies will be big enough to be placed in upwellers in the bay by spring, when the water is warm enough.
Island Creek’s farmers collect oysters over the course of the year, selecting for desirable genetic traits. In December, they place them in a tank in the hatchery, feed them a large meal of algae and bring the water to 75°F—basically trying to convince them it’s July in the bay so they will spawn.
Oysters are sequential hermaphrodites—they change back and forth from male to female. Once one spawns, or releases eggs, he or she releases pheromones and the others all start. The farmers combine the right amount of sperm with the right amount of egg in a bucket, creating free-swimming larvae. They hold them (a few hundred million) in very large tanks and pour in algae. The larvae develop feet, then have to be set.
In the wild, oysters set on a hard substance, usually other oysters or empty oyster shells. In the hatchery, they set on ground-up pieces of oyster shell.
Text: Andrea Pyenson