Rome Point Oyster Farm
Owners: Russ Blank and Bill Blank
Oysters raised: Rome Point Oysters
Farm size: 4 leased sites totaling 16.5 acres
Location: Narragansett Bay, North Kingstown, RI
A Life on the Water
Russ Blank has enjoyed a long history on the waters of Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound. Prior to starting Rome Point Oyster Farm, he dove for quahogs in the bay. In addition, he has run a charter boat company, Striker Charters, for over 20 years. Captain of a 31-foot Duffy that docks in Snug Harbor, he takes passengers fishing inshore for cod, blues, stripers and fluke, or on offshore excursions for tuna and shark.
Following a class in Aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island, Russ applied for a lease on a 4-acre site at Rome Point on the bay, just north of the Jamestown Bridge and adjacent to the John H. Chafee Nature Preserve. In 2001, he acquired the lease, and later leased a neighboring 4-acre site. In 2008, Russ started the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative with the late Lou Riccarelli, who later died in a diving accident. Russ said that the cooperative broke even in its first year, but has taken off since then, shipping oysters as far west as Chicago, as far north as Canada (in the winter months), and as far south as Maryland.
A Typical Day on the Bay
In the winter, Russ and his nephew Thomas usually start their day around 9am. They don’t like to start too early and instead wait a couple of hours to allow for a warmer air temperature. Russ claims that it always feels much colder when you’re on the water as compared to being inland.
“Eighteen degrees feels like five… you’d be surprised at how quickly we work in the winter time. At least the office scenery changes every month. The leaves are here and then they’re gone, then comes wind, snow, sleet, rain, and then summer again. I like it. No boss. Unlimited fresh air and sunshine… suntanning all day long. You just have to reflect on these (summer) days when you’re out here working in the cold during January.” – Russ Blank
With lots of gear spread over many acres, Russ updates a log book daily to track his inventory. Trawl lines dissect the sites. Tagged by a buoy marked with a number, each trawl line connects to three cages. Cages are hauled aboard and emptied. Handling and sorting oysters occurs constantly. The more the oysters are handled, the better the end product. For the marketplace, they are sorted into two sizes: “restaurant oysters” which measure over 3 inches in length, and “petites” which are smaller.
From the last week of September through the month of April, Russ spots harbor seals in the water every day when he works at the sites off Rome Point. Harbor seals arrive at Rome Point as part of their migration south from northern habitats in Maine and Canada.
High Quality Maintains Demand in the Marketplace
It seems that many people include oysters as part of their holiday feasts. The best selling season tends to start with Christmas and New Year’s Day, leading up to Valentine’s Day. Summer tends to slow down a bit, but Russ says that the demand for oysters this summer (2011) has remained steady, a bright note considering the struggling economy. “The steady demand for oysters that we’re seeing this summer is a testimonial to the high quality of oysters coming out of our cooperative.”
“The steady demand for oysters that we’re seeing this summer is a testimonial to the high quality of oysters coming out of our cooperative.” – Russ Blank
Russ describes the flavor of his oysters similar to how you might hear someone describe the taste of a fine wine, more like an experience. In Russ’s words, eaten raw, his oysters have a “salty start, sweet finish.” He shares this cooking tip for the at-home chef and seafood lover. Oysters can be cooked right on the grill. Baste them with some tarragon butter, and they have a similar taste to steamers (steamed soft shell clams).
“Salty start, sweet finish.” – Russ Blank
Building a Reef, One Million Oysters at a Time
Like the other farms in the co-op, Rome Point Oyster Company participates annually in a reef restoration project, started three years ago and government funded by the USDA. The Rome Point Farm alone has brought over 3 million oysters to a designated growing sanctuary in Narragansett Bay. The site will remain closed to oyster harvesting until 2014. Once opened, only oysters measuring a minimum of 3 inches will be permitted for harvesting.
At a lab in Massachusetts, oyster larvae are released into a tank and attach themselves to the shells of hard shell clams. Starting out invisible to the naked eye, the oysters are grown in Russ’s upweller system until they reach 1 inch in size. The shells and attached oysters are brought to the reef site and placed on the bottom of the cove in piles measuring 10 feet square. Following future spawning at the reef site, new larvae will attach themselves to the hard surfaces provided by the deposited shells.