Mystic Oysters – Mollusk Masters of Connecticut Part 1:

By John Tolmie / Photos by Kate Tomie

When first approached to cover this story, the initial impression was to be a fairly straight forward interview and a gleaning to learn a bit more about our locally grown oysters. Yet the storied history, the human interest and the sheer magnitude and complexity of how oysters make it from sea to the table, was a journey that could not be told in just a few pages. This story will cover two editions of Ink Magazine with part two concluding in the September issue.

Marc Harrell waves from his barge at the end of the dock. He hops onto the gangway and makes his way to dry ground. He’s a handsome and hardy looking chap, tanned to a deep bronze which is further accentuated by his bright white smile. Proper introductions are made with the new standard greeting of today, known as “the elbow bump”, bypassing the recent and now bygone practice of the handshake. My wife Kate and I have been invited to tour Mystic Oysters. Kate remarks at the abundance of eccentric looking gear. Marc’s smile widens and says, “This is a very unique operation. Everything you see here is fabricated by us. You can’t buy this equipment anywhere, so we make everything ourselves.” The complex array of gear is neatly strewn across the waterfront property. Marc senses our astonishment and ups his game. “You’ll see a big boat pull up soon. That boat was built right in the back parking lot!” Marc with and his apparently unending supply of energy beckons our trio into a concrete room inside the turn of the century brick building.

Water gushes into an “L” shaped bath and lobster can be seen skittering across its concrete base. “So, we just installed this pound and it’s stocked with fresh Maine lobsters.” Importing lobster to Connecticut has not always been a widely standard practice. Since the 1990’s lobsters stocks have plunged in numbers here in Connecticut waters. Marc agrees and a discussion ensues of how a lobster aqua-culture hatchery could assist; like the one in Bar Harbor Maine which has turned that particular lobster-fishery around.

Marc brightens and says, “The money that gets invested into something like that; it’s all for the future. Everything we do here is an investment in the future. Hatcheries that raise shrimp, lobster, salmon and shellfish; the United States is realizing that aqua culture and hatcheries are the only true sustainable way to provide food and keep our oceans vibrant and healthy. Norway and many other European countries have gravitated more toward aqua-culture and it’s huge over there.”

We move outside as Marc discusses the only food resource that isn’t farmed; our seafood. His tune turns somber, “The fish we harvest can’t breed fast enough to replace what humans take and pelagic’s like cod and blue-fin tuna are in danger as over-fishing continues.” In a moment of guilty silence, there is a pause and a sigh washes over us as we stare across Fishers Island Sound. Marc breaks the mood and cheerily says, “Well, that’s why we do what we do here! C’mon guys let me show you how we grow beautiful, healthy Mystic River Oysters!”

Mystic Oysters started over twenty years ago by an old salt. Jim Marco had purchased the operation that had been defunct for some time. Before buying the business in Mystic, Jim grew up in Great South Bay, and since his teens, had been a clammer and oysterman all over Connecticut and Long Island. “I soak up everything I can from Jim,” Marc recounts, “Everything I know about oysters, I’ve learned from him.” Marc spent his early twenties in the service of the Coast Guard as an ‘Ice Chaser’ while flying above the North Atlantic in a C-130 to report on the movement of dangerous icebergs. “I was stationed in Groton at the time and had rented a little shack on Niantic bay. Jim was my next-door neighbor. Soon I found myself down here working for him on the weekends and my days off. During my five years of active duty here, I grew to love oysters and so when it was time to discharge from service, I wound up working here full time.”

Marc jogs up a fight of creaking stairs and enters Mystic Oysters brood-stock room, a small space full of salt water tubs, each containing a few orderly rows of oysters bathing in cool briny water. Danielle, Mystic Oyster’s marine biologist, is in charge of starting the entire process of growing their oysters. “You’re in luck guys.” Danielle says, “We’ve got a spawn going on here.” Apparently, the oysters in this room are very special. They are the pinnacle of quality and have been handpicked in order to birth all future generations of Mystic River Oysters. “The only way to tell the difference between males and females is when they spawn,” Explains Danielle, “We place the males and females in separate vessels and then trick them into spawning with precise temperature changes. Once the egg or sperm is collected, we mix them together. This produces our entire population of oyster larva.”

With the cycle of life now started, Marc begins to explain the importance of feeding the oysters. “Danielle not only makes oyster larva but she’s also in charge of growing our algae cultures.” Marc crosses the hall into another room that’s kept at a cool sixty five degrees. “Oysters filter algae; that’s how they eat and how they grow, so it’s only natural to feed them what they would filter in the wild.” Various colored liquids bubble in car-boys lined on stainless steel racks. Each strain of algae is designed to feed specifically sized oysters. “Believe it or not, algae cultures are extremely hard to grow. Everything needs to be kept sterilized and at the right temperature.” In yet another room, huge fifty gallon clear tubes gurgle with the same color algae cultures. “After we culture the algae, we farm it in here in these massive flasks. This is what feeds all of our brood-stock, seed oysters and larva here at the hatchery.”

At the end of the hall, a dozen containers hang from the ceiling, like fiberglass beehives, secured by thick chains. “This is where we grow the larvae after Danielle mixes the oyster egg and sperm. Each container holds about two hundred gallons of water.” Marc smiles, “We fabricated this entire structure and made each container in our shop. No one else is doing it the way we do it here. Most farms go by the ‘aqua-culture hand-book’. We’ve thrown that away and have come up with our own systems and designs that we find much more efficient.” The ingenuity, creativity and paradigm thinking of Marc and his team is utterly amazing. “A lot of what we try doesn’t initially work, but sometimes it does, and when it does, there is a huge sense of satisfaction.”

After the larvae have had time to grow, they are sifted from the hanging tanks and poured into a vat containing fine sand produced from pulverized oyster shells. “In the wild, oysters want to settle on rocks or structure. Here they will naturally set on a single piece of this ground-up shell.” Clean ocean water is circulated into the vat and Marc points to a floating tray full of white sand that is peppered with little black dots. “Those tiny dark specks are all Oysters.” He says, “And over here is what we are hoping to produce from those little dots.” Marc reaches into another vat and pulls out a handful of dime sized oysters. “This is the size we use to seed our beds out on the water.”

Marc guides the way downstairs and outside, back into the summer heat and finally to the rear of the building. There, a loading dock is neatly lined with plastic cooler-bins which transport the oysters in proper temperature. A garage door lined with translucent rubber flaps is parted and the distribution center is laid bare. The workers inside are bundled in foul weather gear as the temperature in the room is quite cold. “What a difference from outside, eh?” Marc smiles, “We keep it forty degrees in here all year round. All of our product comes directly into this workshop and we hand pick every oyster that goes out the door.” Two men are measuring and counting each bushel of oysters. Hundreds of plastic baskets line the back wall. Working baskets with oysters of varying sizes are stacked next to the oystermen. Some of the oysters are not yet ready for market and will soon be sent back under the waves to grow on the ocean floor. Others are selected for immediate distribution and are placed in red bushel bags. It’s a well oiled machine and the oystermen work with a mechanical flow as the red mesh bags are filled and stacked ready for shipment to eager local restaurants. “Our local distribution is the life blood of our operation. We do distribute nationally as well. There’s even a restaurant on Laguna Beach California where you can eat a fresh Mystic River Oyster!”

Back in the summer sun, Marc wipes his forehead and takes on a sober tone. “If you were here three months ago, when the pandemic started, you’d have witnessed an entirely different operation.” Marc recalls, “It was just Jim and I doing everything here; all by hand. Luckily we were able to get a loan and hire some people to help out.” Marc explains, “As much as we sell, the farm is still number one, and it was very difficult trying to do both with only two people!” Marc laughs, “We thought we were done for during those months, but we decided to open a farm stand on the weekends. I recruited my son and my wife to run it. I can’t tell you how amazing our community here in Eastern Connecticut is. The word got out on social media and we were flooded with customers. Our community rallied and helped us get through a scary time.” Marc smiles, “We are eternally grateful for all of that support. Now, how about a boat-ride out to our oyster grounds?”

Just as Marc extends the invite, a large metal boat pulls alongside the dock. The founder of Mystic Oysters, Jim Marco, had finally arrived. He waves from his cockpit aboard the “Margaret” and beckons us out with impatient enthusiasm. “I can’t wait for you to meet Jim,” Marc beams, “He’s got story after story to tell. Oh, and that boat you see? That’s the boat we fabricated in the back, I was telling you about. In true oysterman tradition, Jim named it after his mom.” Our trio boards Marc’s motorized barge and steam ahead in the wake of the Margaret. We were about to witness Jim “Mystic Mollusk Master” Marco in action. It was going to be an interesting meeting to hear all about the man behind this truly traditional and quintessential New England enterprise.
To be continued!

Visit Mystic Oysters 100 Main St. Noank CT, 06340 or call (860) 536-0609 or visit www.mysticoysters.com

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Caryn B. Davis Photography