Growing Oysters, And Jobs, In Rhode Island

The Matunuck Oyster Farm in South Kingston, R.I., is owned and operated by oysterman Perry Raso. In a few short years, his business has gone from one man's clam and oyster beds to one of the largest employers in the area, with over 100 employees, an extremely popular restaurant and a vegetable farm. Rasso takes us out on his oyster boat for the day.

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REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir. For most of us, beach food probably means things like hotdogs, hamburgers and lemonade on the boardwalk. But visit the East Matunuck State Beach in Rhode Island, and the food of choice is oysters. From the Matunuck Oyster Bar, a small restaurant down the street, we visited owner and oyster farmer Perry Raso and brought back this audio postcard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Need a hand?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible)

PERRY RASO: My name is Perry Raso. I'm from Matunuck Oyster Farm and Matunuck Oyster Bar. I started a small shellfish farm. After a few years, I expanded to four-acre farm, and now, I'm at a seven-acre farm. In 2009, I purchased the restaurant, and it became popular. And we were voted the best new restaurant in Rhode Island. And it's a lot of work and a lot of good people out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR ENGINE REVVING)

RASO: We're in Potter Pond in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, the southern part of Rhode Island. Potter Pond is a salt pond and estuary with an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. This pond is actually the deepest salt pond in Rhode Island. It was formed by a glacier thousands of years ago.

So the farm starts right here. It's on the other side of that salt marshes, the dunes and the barrier beach, East Matunuck State Beach. We're coming up to right now rows of oyster bags. Much like rows of corn or vegetables at a vegetable farm, there's rows of oysters in these sturdy plastic mesh bags.

Some of the bags that are standing up are getting ready to be put back in the lines, laid parallel with the sea floor there, suspended from the sea floor with PVC plastic racks, and there's roughly 10,000 bags of oysters.

I first started digging shellfish when I was in junior high. I snuck behind some summer homes in the pond and started digging little net plant and making, you know, 30, 40 bucks cash at the end of the day. I started scuba diving forum. I went away to college and studied aquaculture and fisheries technology at URI. And, you know, I started the farm and then gradually expanded it.

So I'm going to jump in right now. Here, you can see a bag of oysters. On top of the bag, it's got algae on it. Running the bag, not as much. We stock the oysters. We start them at about 1,500 oysters per bag. And then as they get larger, they graduate into larger bags. And you can see the new growth of the oysters, the edge of the oysters called the cuticle, the clear - and it's very soft.

And one of the things we do to kind of create a better product is break that cuticle off by shaking the bag of oysters. It breaks that cuticle off. It makes - slows the growth down a little bit, but it makes a thicker shell and a more uniformed shape of oyster. It also cleans some of the (unintelligible) off the oysters. But you can see in the bag the size discrepancy. You know, they grow at different rates.

The oysters are sold as individual - by the piece. So the first bag we pulled up was about 1,200 oysters when we first stock them. We stock them 1,500 oysters in a bag. When I first started, I would open bags that had giant starfish in it and a bunch of dead oysters. Now, how did this big starfish get in the bag? And what happened was they got in the bag when it was little and small enough to move through the mesh and made a whole living on eating the oysters and then became a giant starfish. And then - but now, you know, we maintain our gear better so that doesn't happen.

You could spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week out here. And the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. The more you maintain the oysters, the better they'll survive and the better they'll grow.

SHEIR: That was oyster farmer Perry Raso of the Matunuck Oyster Farm in Rhode Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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