In 2001, Perry conducted a study to measure total organic carbon (TOC) in the water at 16 different oysters farms, as compared to non-farm sites. TOC is one determinant of water quality. The less TOC found, the cleaner the water. The study found less carbon in the water on the oyster farm sites, where oysters aided in its filtration.
One year later, Perry was awarded a Rhode Island Sea Grant to teach others about aquaculture and the importance of taking care of the environment at the local level. That same year, he started the Matunuck Oyster Farm.
Biodiversity Down on the Farm
The seven-acre farm in the clean and placid waters of Potter’s Pond is divided into five sections, each with oysters at different stages of growth. Water depth at the farm is shallow, no deeper than waist high. On any given day, anywhere from six to eight employees can be found working the farm, helping to raise and care for up to 17 million oysters, depending on the time of year. 70 lines traverse the bottom of the pond, and 100 netted bags of oysters are attached to each line.
Half of the farm’s hands are either undergraduate or graduate students in marine-based studies at URI’s Bay Campus. Farmhands handle the oysters frequently, shaking the netted bags. This breaks off the new growth (cuticle) on the edges of the shell, resulting in a deeper, more meaty oyster. Oysters are constantly sorted as they grow to maintain the proper stocking density within each of the netted bags, one of the most important aspects to raising a quality oyster. Larger, faster growing oysters are sorted into bags containing fewer numbers of oysters, which permits good access to water flow and food. In addition to oysters, the farm also raises about 200,000 quahogs (hard shell clams), raises and sells oyster seed, and also grows and harvests edible seaweed.
The farm started growing and selling oyster seed in 2010. Not only is demand high for oysters by consumers, but the demand for seed by oyster farmers is high as well. Perry priced his seed so that it made sense for both his farm as well as for other farmers looking to buy seed.
“I wanted to make purchasing seed a reasonable investment for local farmers.” – Perry Raso
Seeds start out at about 1 mm in size. Matunuck Oyster Farm sells them once they reach a size of about 20-25 mm. This is a tricky grow-out period. Selling the seed at this size eliminates some of the risk for the farmers. The farm sold 2 million seeds in 2011 to neighboring oyster farms in RI, CT and MA.
Farmhands also tend crops of edible seaweed, a species known as Gracilaria. The seaweed is tan in color and grows in netted containers. It’s another locally-grown food on the farm that Perry takes great pride in, because most edible seaweed is typically imported. Similar in texture to celery, the farm’s seaweed contributes a crispy, crunchy, and slightly briny flavor to the seaweed salad served fresh at Perry’s oyster bar.
Local Flavor, Local Benefits
Geography greatly impacts an oyster’s appearance (outside of shell), as well as how it tastes. Even though the different farms in the cooperative are all within about twenty miles of each other, oysters grown from the same batch of seed in each of the farms will end up different from each other. After an 18-month growth cycle, the oysters from the different farms will vary both in appearance and taste.
“An oyster’s flavor is shaped by the water in which it lives and grows, instilling differences in how salty or briny one oyster tastes in comparison to one raised at a different farm. It’s similar to how grapes from different regions produce wines of different flavors and characteristics. Other things, such as the type of algae that an oyster is feeding on at a given time of year, affect its flavor in more subtle ways.” –Perry Raso
Great demand exists in the marketplace for RI-grown oysters. Rhode Island oyster farms produce a premium product: oysters exhibiting clean shells with a uniform shape and a nice deep cup. Perry’s oysters can also be found at local farmers’ markets, as well as at local seafood festivals and events.
Sustainable aquaculture like oyster farming contributes to the local community and beyond, on social, economic, and environmental levels. Oyster farms increase biodiversity in the ecosystem by creating a habitat for a variety of marine species. Oysters themselves help filter the water in their estuary, as well as increase the percentage of oxygen in the water.
Like other farms in the cooperative, for the last 3 years Matunuck Oyster Farm has participated in a reef restoration project funded by the USDA, contributing and distributing the maximum amount of oysters to the site every year. Young oysters are raised on the shells of hard shell clams. Matunuck Oyster Farm deposits their oysters in a designated growing sanctuary, creating a reef and adding to the wild stock already there.
Delivered Farm Fresh: Pond to Plate
As part of the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative, Perry’s membership has proven a valuable asset. All of the oyster farmers in the co-op share a pride in their work and in the high-quality oysters that they raise.
“One of the benefits to the co-op is that it’s this great knowledge pool. There’s great communication between the member farmers. We help each other not only to solve various shared problems, but can lend a hand or provide each other with equipment when it’s needed.” – Perry Raso
The co-op takes pride in its ability to deliver fresh seafood. The “pond to plate” movement is gaining followers and is very popular with Rhode Island residents. It makes for a great niche for oyster farmers, as well as for Perry’s oyster bar.
Belly Up to Freshness
In an effort to help local farmers, harvesters, and bakers, Perry wanted to create a restaurant where people could enjoy delicious dishes prepared with fresh, locally-grown ingredients, as well as fresh wild caught seafood. Not only did he succeed in his endeavor, but his restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar, was presented “Best New Restaurant” in the 2011 Best of Rhode Island Awards by Rhode Island Monthly magazine. Perry is quite proud of this achievement and attributes his restaurant’s success to his dedicated and hard working staff.
Conveniently, the restaurant sits next to a small inlet into Potter’s Pond, the home of Matunuck Oyster Farm. Oysters are brought in daily by farm boats, which dock just off the restaurant’s waterfront patio. Within an hour or two, oysters are harvested from the water and served up on a plate. Or if you like, try an Oyster Shooter, a popular drink containing a fresh, whole oyster. On summer days, a whopping 1500 oysters are shucked at the bar and in the kitchen. Oyster platters offer a sampling of different oysters from the local farms.
Boat tours of the farm leave the dock behind the oyster bar and can be enjoyed year round. It’s a quick ride to the farm where Perry and his staff, through education, hope to pass on their shared passion for supporting local aquaculturists and farmers.