To make a living on Martha’s Vineyard can sometimes take a little creativity and passion. I am always interested in learning about people and how they make year-round life on the Island work.
Even more interesting to me, the land lubber I am, is how people use the bounty of our waters as a way of life.
Meet the Smith family, Ryan, Julia, Hailey (5), and Mya (3) of Signature Oysters Katama Bay.
For eight years, Ryan has been farming oysters in Katama Bay. Starting back in 2006, the first two years were rough. Between the time it takes for an oyster to grow and a rough couple of seasons weather wise, there was no money to be made.
However, Ryan didn’t give up. Growing up on Martha’s Vineyard, his father encouraged him to go to college and stay away from making a living on the water, which seemed to work when Ryan was young.
Working on the water was the furthest thing from his mind. His father was and is, a fisherman. His boat is the Alison Lee by Memorial Wharf in Edgartown, and Ryan had no interest at all growing up.
Once Ryan graduated from school, he returned to the Island. He decided to spend a little time with his dad fishing.
He fished, he scalloped, he caught conch, but nothing caught his attention. However, he knew he wanted to stay on the Island.
Then, he learned about oyster farming in Katama Bay. Jack Blake (Sweetneck Oysters) was there, along with three other farmers. They were working the water, and were, and still are successful.
They helped Ryan learn about oyster farming.
Ryan decided to become an oyster farmer. He sold all his “cool guy” belongings and got the basics to get going. A risky move for someone so young.
There were only four farms when he started, now there are 12. The demand for oysters has grown quite a bit, and keeps getting better.
As I mentioned, Ryan started in 2006 and had two tough years, and made no money. However, Ryan wasn’t giving up, and one of the great things about being an oyster farmer in Katama is that everyone is willing to help each other out. It’s not as tough as many other fishing industries can be.
Nowadays Ryan has a larger boat, the Hailey May, and grows and sells about 30,000 Signature Oysters a week from March until August, and about 5,000 a week starting in September.
I didn’t realize growing oysters is a 365 day a year job. Ryan, sometimes with Julia and the girls, is out in Katama Bay almost everyday no matter the weather. Well, a blizzard or a hurricane give cause for a day away, but talk about an office with a view.
The oysters take about 16 months to mature. Seem like a long time? In the wild, it takes three years but in the Katama Bay narrows, where the current is quite fast, there are near perfect conditions for growing oysters.
There is constantly all sorts of plankton and organic particles for them to feed on so they grow more quickly.
Also the moving water helps keep the baby oysters clean and from clumping together. They’re pretty happy oysters. Ryan describes the flavor of their oysters as briney and pleasantly plump, with a nice thick shell.
The shell is important because a thicker shell means they are easier to open and leads to a cleaner oyster. I would add that there is a bit of sweetness to the oysters too as far as describing the taste. I get to eat Katama Bay oysters often at Offshore Ale.
They start out as itty bitty oysters and come in a bag with 1.5 million to start out. They spend their first couple of months in upwellers and then move out to the farm and into cages.
Once the oysters are in the farms, which are out in the narrows, the oysters have to be tended to daily. They have to be cleaned.
Barnacles and sponges like to grow on the cages, and the oysters don’t like that. The oyster cages also have to be shaken so the oysters don’t stick to one another.
It’s a lot of physical labor, but Ryan loves it. He considers his oysters his little sea babies. Many of them he can recognize throughout their growth cycle.
He spends so much time making sure they have a good life. For him, it’s so rewarding being his own boss. He’s working for the good of his family and every moment is an investment.
Now it’s a family business. Julia helps Ryan a lot these days. She’s a little competitive, so they have little contests against each other. They have a lot of laughs together on the boat.
She also does the books, keeping everything organized.
Also, Hailey loves to help with the oysters. She counts them out and helps pack them up for selling. She’s never counted wrong yet.
This is perfect for Ryan. He’s working hard to grow the business, and he hopes to have his daughters working side by side with him in the family business for years to come.
We passed by him, sitting on his raft working away. A typical New England scruffy fisherman. I couldn’t help but smile. His uncle has become an oyster farmer as well.
You can’t be an oyster farmer just anywhere, and it’s nice to know that with each Signature Oyster that’s consumed, you’re helping a young family be successful on Martha’s Vineyard. It makes me all warm and fuzzy!
You can get Signature Oysters at Net Result and a large percentage are sent to Boston. Many of the restaurants on the Island get their oysters from the Net Result, so chances are that when you’re eating Katama Bay oysters — they’re the Smith family’s oysters.
Don’t you feel like having oysters now? I know I do. Half dozen Katama Bays please.