Nozlee Samadzadeh

Oyster Farming with Bren Smith of the Thimble Island Oyster Co.

October 11, 2012

We're celebrating the artisans, writers, makers, and more who make up the diverse and inspiring world of food.

Today: We sail the Long Island Sound with Bren Smith of Connecticut's Thimble Island Oyster Co. and learn about sustainability and the sea.

Shop the Story

"Farming" for oysters sounds funny, doesn't it? But just as there are sustainable farms on land, sustainable ocean farms are the future of keeping our local waters clean. That's exactly what Bren Smith is doing at the Thimble Island Oyster Co, the first vertical multi-species ocean farm in Long Island Sound.

And "vertical" is meant literally -- from the mussels, scallops, and seaweed that grow near the surface of the water to the cages of oysters and clams that grow on the water's surface. We visited New Haven, Connecticut and spent a day on Bren's boat learning about sustainable ocean farming, how oysters help clean the water naturally, his Commercially Supported Fisheries program (like a CSA but for oysters and clams -- and covered recently in the New York Times), and how seaweed is a source of both food and biodiesel.

Oh, and we ate amazing local shellfish, from oysters to periwinkles -- the next time you make shellfish for dinner, keep it local and you'll notice the difference!

The day began with sailing out from the dock to Bren's boat, which is perfectly sized for one hard-working fisherman and a couple of visitors. The first rule? Walk by shuffling your feet close to the ground -- you never know when you might trip on an errant piece of rope.

We drove out to his 60-acre grounds in Connecticut's Thimble Islands. Most of the water in the Long Island Sound is owned by just a few familiies -- Bren got his grounds when, for the first time in decades, they opened up the market to younger fishermen interested in sustainability. And you find sustainability everywhere at the Thimble Island Oyster Co. -- from the low-emission engine on the boat, to the recycled oyster cages, to converting the boat and their refrigeration facilities to run on solar energy.

Time to get to work! We anchored the boat and set out to pull up an oyster cage, a multi-step process. The boat is outfitted with a pulley, which Bren attached to the rope leading up from the cage. I cranked the winch while he did the hard work keeping the rope steady, stopping every so often to clean the rope of the mussels and seaweeed growing on it (as you can see in the upper right).

And there it is! These cages don't just hold oysters -- they function as artificial reefs for many different species in the Sound, from striped bass to crabs. It's a win-win situation: as the oysters grow, they filter the ocean water (up to 50 gallons per oyster per day!), providing a cleaner place for the rest of the ecosystem to live.

To protect them from predators, the oysters themselves grow in mesh bags, two per cage. We found a variety of other fish and shellfish friends in the cage, from a 6-inch striped bass to tiny, fast-moving shore crabs to a much larger one that I posed with for a photo before tossing back into the ocean!

Bren aims to "touch" all of his oysters -- to lift out the cages, clean them (as seen here, hosing them down), and toss any dead ones -- every five weeks or so. The oysters we pulled out were a few years old and ready to harvest. Like lobsters and other shellfish, however, oysters will keep growing if left in the water. A foot-wide oyster? Bren's seen them.

After reassembling the oyster bags into the cage and dropping it back down below, we checked on Bren's mussels. Imagine a very, very long fishnet stocking filled with tiny mussels -- that's how they're grown. Over the two years that mussels take to grow, they get bigger and bigger until their shells thrust out of the net's holes. When it comes time to harvest, Bren described, this little net will look like a huge rope of shells held together by the mussels' beards.

Of course, it wouldn't be a day on an oyster boat without sampling some of the wares! In restaurants oysters are served ice-cold, but on this day we ate them still warm and brine-y from the Sound. The seawater practically made garnishes unnecessary -- just open and slurp. A perfect end to the day.

(An outtake: I briefly steered, until we remembered that I can't drive a car and probably shouldn't drive a boat.)

Images from Bren Smith of the Thimble Island Oyster Co, Zan Romanoff of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and Nozlee Samadzadeh.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marc Osten - Marc's Culinary Compass
    Marc Osten - Marc's Culinary Compass
  • thirschfeld
  • pizzamonster
  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
I'm Nozlee Samadzadeh, a writer, editor, farmer, developer, and passionate home cook. Growing up Iranian in Oklahoma, working on a small-scale organic farm, and cooking on a budget all influence the way I cook -- herbed rice dishes, chicken fried steak, heirloom tomato salad, and simple poached eggs all make appearances on my bright blue kitchen table. I love to eat kimchi (homemade!) straight from the jar and I eat cake for breakfast.


Marc O. December 11, 2012
Celebrating these people and the efforts they make to lead us to a more sustainable future is incredible. So then it is up to us all to WAKE UP that the full on global depletion of our oceans is unecessary. There are FREE resources for chefs and the rest of us foodies who care about overfishing, underutilized fish species and where we get our fish. Regional guides about specific fish species, ratings of fish/food purveyors and more.
Time is running out but we can improve the situation.
thirschfeld October 11, 2012
That is on my bucket list, eating fresh oysters right out of the ocean like that. Lucky lucky you!
pizzamonster October 11, 2012
Wow--much respect to Bren for running a fantastic ocean farm! Anyone have recommendations for local, sustainable shellfish in New York?
Kenzi W. October 11, 2012
Or to Nozlee for driving a boat!