WOODS HOLE – In Thoreau’s classic “Cape Cod,” the author meets an oysterman, a “grizzly-looking” 88-year-old, self-educated and extra-attuned to the vagaries of the tides and the sea.
Meet the new oystermen, 21st century scientist farmers who also harvest their product from the sea in methods not unlike those used 150 years ago.
Peter Chase, 36, of West Falmouth and Eric Matzen, 34, of Falmouth, are part of Falmouth Shellfish Cooperative, a partnering of local oyster farmers.
Chase is a fish biologist at the Northeast Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Woods Hole.
Matzen, who works in gear research at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, part of NOAA, hails from the Chesapeake region. “I always had an interest in [oyster farming],” he said.
Sippewissett Oysters, the name given to the product of the Falmouth Shellfish Cooperative, are all farmed in fairly close proximity in the waters of Buzzards Bay off the western shores of Falmouth between Woods Hole and North Falmouth.
Like fine wines, the flavor of oyster varies according to the terroir, or growing conditions, which, in the case of oysters, means the waters where they are harvested.
The fact that Sippewissett Oysters are grown in the waters of Buzzards Bay rather than an estuarine environment with a mix of salt and fresh water, helps determine the taste, according to Chase.
“There’s a pretty high salinity in Buzzards Bay,” he said.
Chase described Sippewissett oysters as “definitely salty” and “very flavorful.”
Those qualities make it, as Chase said, “a really friendly oyster for first time oyster eaters.”
The fact that they are grown in deeper water means the meat is a little bit smaller and with more “liqueur,” as Chase called the oyster juice.
He went on, “the ratio of meat to liqueur is better.”
“I think our oysters are really good. They have a unique taste,” Chase said. “That’s what keeps us going everyday. We make a really high quality oyster.”
“High quality over high volume,” Matzen added.
Chase was a pioneer of oystering off Woods Hole shores when he started about 10 years ago. At that time, there were some opposed to the new enterprise. He remembers going to neighborhood meetings accompanied by Dr. Dale Leavitt, a shellfish scientist, now a professor at Roger Williams University.
Their reassurances that the oystering would not damage the beaches “changed some minds,” Chase said.
After all the permitting was completed, Chase got his gear in the water eight or nine years ago. The good news, he said, is he has not had one complaint since setting up shop, so to speak, off the coast.
Quite the contrary. “Some swim or kayak out and talk to me,” he said of curious onlookers.
Things neighbors were most concerned about didn’t happen, he said. For instance, “none of our gear washed up on the beach.”
Most of the Falmouth oyster fleet is docked in Woods Hole. Chase’s boat, the Maisie McCrae, is named after his five-year-old daughter.
Chase is quick to remember the age of his boat, which he bought one week before his daughter was born. With his wife, Amy, he also has a three-year-old, Miles, and baby Owen, 7 weeks.
Four or five years after Chase began farming his two-acre oyster grant off Gansett Beach in Woods Hole, other oystermen set up grants nearby.
He helped the newcomers by giving advice and they became friends.
“I said let’s not compete. Let’s work together and share a facility. We all help each other,” Chase said.
“He is definitely the leader of the group,” said Matzen about Chase.
Eventually four different grant owners partnered with Ron Smolowitz of Coonamessett Farm to form Falmouth Shellfish Cooperative with Smolowitz supplying the facility to store the product, as well as an outlet at his farmstand to sell it.
Besides at Coonamessett Farm, Sippewissett Oysters can also be found on the menus at the Quarterdeck Restaurant on Main Street in Falmouth and Quck’s Hole restaurant on Luscombe Avenue in Woods Hole.
Chase said he buys some 50,000 shellfish seed a year from Fisher’s Island Oyster Farm. The seed are half-inch in the spring when they are purchased. By the following summer, some are ready. But typically the shellfish are on the grant for three summers in order to get to the size of three inches, which means they are ready to harvest.
For Matzen’s grant, just over three acres that he began farming in 2010, he said he buys about 75,000 oyster seed a year.
Both men credit Smolowitz as being instrumental in their success.
But deep water oystering is not easy work.
“Our sites are more challenging than probably most grants,” Chase said. “We’re in exposed locations. Weather is definitely an issue.”
While some other oyster farmers have their grants in an inner tidal area that is easily accessible at low tide. Falmouth Shellfish Cooperative grants are all in deeper water. That means that to work on their equipment, they must use their boat to get out to the grant and then haul the cages up to work on their gear. They sometimes need to haul their gear to their boat in rough conditions.
Matzen always repairs his gear by diving and the others dive occasionally for maintenance.
But to these guys, it is worth it. “We love it,” Matzen said. “That’s the most important thing. We love doing it.”
Chase added, “We’re going to keep working at it and getting better at it. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Sippewissett Oyster Tasting
An Oyster Shucking and Tasting Event will be held Friday, August 30 at the Woods Hole Historical Museum from 5 to 8 PM. Peter Chase and Eric Matzen will be on hand to demonstrate oyster shucking techniques. A tasting will follow with beer and wine. Tickets are $25 and for sale at the museum at 579 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole. The event is a benefit the Woods Hole Historical Museum programs. Call 508-548-7270 to reserve tickets.
– Laura M. Reckford