Did you know that white tablecloth establishments from Boston to Maryland are featuring Connecticut oysters on their raw bar menus? Connecticut oysters are expanding their position in the marketplace as the restaurant industry recognizes the advantages of the progressive methods used by the state’s shellfish farmers to harvest a boutique oyster with a distinct flavor profile.
“We’re unique in that we have favorable water quality as well as depth in the Long Island Sound,” says David H. Carey, director of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Bureau of Aquaculture.
Historically, Connecticut’s shellfish industry has been bottom-cultured oyster, hard clam, and oyster seed beds cultivating approximately 80,000 acres underwater. However, ample opportunity exists for smaller scale, more densely cultivated shellfish operations.
Stella Mar Oyster Co.
Established in 2005, Stamford-based Stella Mar Oyster Co. has taken advantage of Connecticut’s deep coastal waters, harvesting between 15,000 and 25,000 off-bottom caged oysters per day during peak times.
The large-scale operation received a Connecticut Department of Agriculture Farm Transition Grant for their cage aquaculture project to create levels of efficiency, not only with ease of maintenance and harvesting, but with the most effective use of the water column. The cage frame uses five-inch-tall trays, measuring three feet by four feet, which hold between 600 and 2,000 oysters, depending on their size. In each cage, 60 trays are vertically stacked and each stack extends eight feet into the water column.
Stella Mar’s cages are much larger than the cages in use by many competitors. Steve Schafer, who owns the company with his business partner, Jardar Nygaard, says their sizeable, heavy gear has a distinct advantage, helping the operation run more smoothly.
In addition, Schafer notes that growing oysters off- bottom in deep water gives them greater access to the entire water column, which allows the animals to obtain more nutrients – and he says you can taste the difference. “We’re trying to grow what we see as the perfect oyster, which we believe is round, has a deep cup and plump meat, and it is not too salty,” Schafer says. “As a result, you can taste all three aspects of the flavor profile.”
Caring for off-bottom caged oysters is a far more involved process than bottom culturing, which is the closest method to growing oysters like wild oysters, but it gives farmers a great deal of control over their output. To Schafer, that element of control is completely worth the required effort.
“Off-bottom caged aquaculture works for us at Stella Mar on this scale because we are able to predict our cash flow, and we’re able to do real-time inventory assessments,” Schafer says. “We can inspect the health of our oysters at the snap of a finger. All we have to do is haul up the gear, take a look at the animals, and crack a few open. It’s easy for us to find out if we need to manipulate the process and move the oysters to a different area on our farm.”
In addition, Schafer says growing oysters in off- bottom cages keeps them out of harm’s way, eliminating the risk of being eaten by natural enemies like crabs, starfish and oyster drills, a type of predatory sea snail. “This process significantly mitigates predation, and that’s another huge benefit of off-bottom caged oyster farming,” Schafer says.
All of these factors enable Stella Mar to produce a high-quality, sustainable cultured oyster highly suitable for the prestigious half shell market. The next time you visit a raw bar, seek out Connecticut shellfish and taste the difference yourself.