Like many Rhode Island farmers, Perry Raso works the land in all weather and all seasons to produce an outstanding crop for market. Unlike most other farmers, the land he works is covered by 3-4 feet of salt water. On a recent clear summer morning, two chefs hopped into a skiff with this energetic owner of Matunuck Oyster Farm, a cat’s-paw breeze tickling the surface of Potters Pond in Matunuck, RI. With an easy smile and vise-like grip that makes you think he could skip the whole shucking process, Perry pulled up a few of his 10,000 plastic mesh bags filled with oysters in various stages of growth.
Crassatrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, is a soft-bodied mollusk that secretes a hinged calcium carbonate shell to protect itself from creatures like starfish (or any smart and hungry human) who might decide to eat it. Oysters live in the brackish water of protected estuaries and salt ponds close to the shoreline, sucking up to 15 gallons of water per day through a siphon, ingesting microscopic phytoplankton and pumping clear water back out.
Historically abundant, wild oyster beds are a keystone component of healthy coastal ecosytems. Oyster beds enhance habitat for fish and marine invertebrates, keep water clear for growth of eelgrass beds, and are important nursery areas that return dissolved oxygen to the water column. The productive areas the oysters call home have been heavily impacted by coastal development. Nutrient enrichment linked to sewage effluent and fertilizer runoff causes algae blooms and subsequent die-offs that create eutrophic (low-oxygen) conditions, dead zones and massive fish kills. Wild oysters are almost completely gone from our local waters. They have been reduced to 2% of their original range in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay thanks to filthy industrial-scale poultry operations.
As a result, we have seen significant growth in the field of aquaculture over the past ten years. Local oyster operations have grown from 16 to 38 and are sustainable contributors to improving environmental quality. A tremendous amount of research is focused on reintroduction of these important bivalve workers that improve water quality in fragile marine ecosystems. At Matunuck Oyster Farm, tiny oysters, purchased from a marine laboratory where they are hatched from spat (spawn), are set out in an enormous grid of mesh bags. This is no set-it-and-forget-it-operation. The bags need to be constantly graded for size and checked for fouling with seaweed that can reduce water flow and kill young oysters.
A 2002 graduate of URI’s Aquascience & Fisheries Technology degree program, Perry grew up within earshot of Rhode Island’s crashing surf. He has worked on the water since age 12 when he started digging and diving for clams. While contemplating career choices, he realized he had been building his foundation all along. Oysters are celebrated for their unique local flavor, or “merroir”, reflective of the water where they grow. They are best enjoyed fresh and close to the source. Perry determined that oysters would grow more slowly in Potters Pond than in other locations but would give him an excellent survival rate, meaty texture and sweet flavor in exchange. It seemed like a good trade-off so he acquired a lease from the Rhode Island DEM and began building one of today’s most recognizable brands of locally grown seafood.
Like any intelligent small farmer, Perry sees diversification as an important component of a successful business strategy, particularly with an economic forecast that looks darker than the inside of a coal miner’s pocket. He has built a number of revenue streams that create robust cash flow and enable him to contemplate future growth. With the help of 8-10 employees, Raso provides: (1) juvenile oysters to other growers, (2) market-size oysters to his own brand sold at Farmers Markets and at his own wildly successful Matunuck Oyster Bar and (3) tiny post-set larvae attahed to bags of old quahog shells for government oyster restoration programs. Perry’s casual waterfront restaurant provides jobs to over 80 Rhode Islanders. While he has consulted with start-up aquaculture operations from China to Zanzibar, it is on his home waters he is most happy and where he may be found shucking a truly great oyster.