East Beach Oyster Company
Owner: Nick Papa
Farm size: 1 leased 3-acre site
Location: Ninigret Pond, Charlestown, RI
A Seaside Oasis
A blue jewel that's home to East Beach Oyster Company, Ninigret Pond is a 1700-acre coastal lagoon located in Charlestown, Rhode Island. Bounded on its south side by barrier beaches and to the east by Charlestown Beach, the pond is linked to the Atlantic and Block Island Sound via the Charlestown Breachway. Generally shallow with an average depth of less than six feet, the pond’s southern areas tend to be the most shallow with its many shoals, born from storm surges and windblown sand. Supplied by small brooks and springs, fresh water enters the pond and mixes with the salt water entering from the ocean. Like its pristine water, the pond exhibits serene landscapes of unspoiled beauty.
The three farms that co-exist on the pond are located within fairly close proximity to each other. Mirroring the closeness of the three farms, the three oyster farmers on the pond share a close bond as well. Nick Papa owns East Beach Oyster Company, one of the three farms nestled in Ninigret Pond. While his leased site is separate from the sites of the other two farms, like the state in which it resides, Ninigret is not that big of a pond. Nick converses with the owners of the other two farms, Rob Krause and Jim Arnoux, on a daily basis. Their friendship is evident as they joke with each other on the floating nursery, like three friends in an office sharing laughs at the water cooler.
A Shared Nursery
The floating nursery is in fact, owned by Rob Krause, but shared and worked on by all three farmers. Each owner purchases their own seed each year, but they all use the floating nursery as the starting point for growing the tiny oysters. Of the three owners, Nick usually spends the most time at the nursery in the summer months while his employees tend and harvest the older oysters on his leased site. Starting in early June, Nick can be seen scooping up oyster seed from a large plastic tub containing water and seed. He places the seed, which looks similar to granola, into a fine screen and sifts it to separate the faster growing oysters from the slightly smaller, slower growers. He transfers the larger seed to plastic bags constructed of 1/8 inch mesh. These roomier accommodations provide access to more water. Access to more water translates to access to more food, which leads to faster growth for the baby oysters.
By mid-October, the nursery has been emptied of oysters, and all of Nick’s oysters have been moved to systems on his 3-acre leased site in preparation for the winter months on the pond. The nursery systems become unproductive once the water temperature gets too cold. Once this happens, the growth rate of the oysters slows as they shift their energies to surviving the winter.
Suited for Winter
The thought of swimming at the beach doesn’t enter the minds of most people in the middle of winter, unless they partake annually in a frigid ocean plunge on New Year’s Day, or if they’re an oyster farmer. On Nick’s leased 3-acre site, cages containing oysters sit on the bottom in three feet of water and can be reached and maintained from a dry vantage point on his boat. In the shallower areas, rack systems constructed of PVC hold bagged oysters, and these are tended while wading in the water. Water levels do not differ drastically in the pond from tidal changes, changing a foot at most. In the cold months, Nick and his crew work a full day, courtesy of a thick wet suit, composed of 7-millimeter-thick rubber that insulates them from the chilling water. In the coldest months, they don a heavier dry suit that keeps the icy water completely out.
When asked if he eats more in the winter to increase his caloric intake for working in the cold water, Nick says that it’s hard to say. With a laugh, he claims that he normally eats a lot.
Predators in the Pond
Some of Nick’s mature oysters sit loosely on the pond’s bottom. Starfish and Blue Crabs have easier access to these oysters, as opposed to oysters held in cages. Being on the bottom helps to develop hearty oysters with hardened shells. Not only do chefs who open the oysters appreciate this characteristic, but it generally makes for a better product.
Educating the Public
Most recreational boaters on the pond stay within deeper, marked routes to navigate to the breachway. Kayakers and canoeists on the other hand, are not restricted by the shallows and usually venture near the farms. Many will strike up a conversation with Nick, curious to learn more about the oyster farms. Nick is willing to oblige their inquisitiveness. He answers their questions and educates them on the benefits of the oysters: their positive impact on pond life and water quality. If his schedule allows, he’ll even provide them with a free tour. Nick says that most everyone he encounters on the pond is very pleased to have the farms there.
*Information specific to Ninigret Pond derived from A Daytripper’s Guide to Rhode Island (http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/daytrip/text/coastlines/ninigret_pond.html)