Mollusk Masters Of Mystic: Part Two

By John Tolmie with Photos by Kate Tolmie

Bright blue midday skies painted with lazy clouds welcome us as we follow Jim Marco, in his wake, toward his beloved oyster grounds which lie at the mouth of the Mystic River. We follow behind in a hefty steel scow piloted by Jim’s second in command, Marc Harrell. A clinic on oyster bed maintenance was about to begin and my wife Kate and I have been invited to witness this old-time New England ritual first hand. Orange flags flap in the gentle breeze, forming a rough boundary of water just forward of the bow. “These flags mark our oyster grounds.” Yells Marc over the motor’s hum, “These are old traditional oyster grounds that had been farmed by the Malloy Family for many, many years. Jim was able to purchase the grounds and now we own them. It’s where every Mystic River Oyster comes from.” Marc backs off on the engine and the workboat slows to a crawl.

Off the bow, Mystic Oysters flagship, the Margaret M, cuts to port and slows as her reverse gear is lightly throttled. Over the rumble of engines and clanging steel, Jim Marco’s graveled voice can be heard barking jovial orders from the helm. An oysterman on the Margaret M’s deck, donned in bright orange slickers, nods and simultaneously lowers a large steel claw over the side and splashes down as it has done thousands of times before. The contraption acts as a combination rake and scoop, which will bring a hearty sampling of oysters, growing on the tidal and nutrient-rich bottom, topside for inspection.

“That’s a traditional oyster dredge and its design has been unchanged for over a century,” Marc explains as hundreds of fresh oysters rise from the silt-laden depths. “It’s basically a steel basket with small teeth welded across its mouth. It barely cuts into the seafloor and scoops up the oysters which fall into a mesh bag and are brought to the surface. Once the dredge is full we bring it over the side, open the door on the bag and dump the oysters out. We usually unload them on the deck or onto the boats table. It’s a pretty smooth operation.”As if on command the oyster dredge is dragged over the side as salty water and river mud pour from the sides of the bag. The deckhand unlatches the door and hundreds of fresh oysters tumble forth onto a massive stainless steel table at the center of the Margret M’s deck. The whine of machinery hisses as a steady plume of river water gushes from a forward-mounted hose. The deckhand grasps the hose and moves the spout back and forth, rinsing the recently dredged oysters clean. “Each oyster is touched, by hand or by dredge, at least fifty times before arriving at the table. Each and every oyster is inspected so that we can proudly deliver the very best product.” After sorting the oysters, the deckhand then uses the powerful hose to wash a good portion of the oysters back into the water. I ask Marc why those particular oysters are being washed overboard. “Good question” Marc says, “We are good. We’ve harvested enough for today, enough to make our orders anyway. We harvest and ship daily, and we only harvest the best of the best for the market. Providing the public with the freshest oysters, from sea to table, is our ultimate goal.”

With the Margaret M’s belly chock full of the stony mollusks, Captain Jim waves his tanned weathered arm, beckoning us to follow him back to the dock. Marc turns the wheel on the scow and once again slips into the mother ship’s wake. In true Marc Harrell fashion, he uses the opportunity to offer up a valiant vision for the future of the oyster industry. “When it comes to this type of work, this hard manual labor, we really have to see more kids on the water.” He says this with conviction and concern, “We need to get our local youth involved in aquaculture, and specifically with oyster farming. A lot of kids aren’t taught what a good work ethic is these days. We are a good proving ground here to help kids appreciate what a fun and hard day’s work is. Here, they can witness how food is really grown. It’s a shame that kids grow up not knowing where most of their food comes from.” Marc’s belief that working on the water is a special sort of vocation. It drives the desire to discover the ocean and thereby igniting the aspiration to choose an aquatically driven career. “The water is really the magic ingredient that draws people out. I just hope we can get more of our children involved. It’s really an amazing and exceptional life to be able to work out here.” Thoughts of video games and YouTube flood my mind as Marc’s words find purchase. The magic of the sea and all that can be discovered under its waves is vast and endless; a perfect replacement for the electronic leash that has engrossed many of our youth today. “It’s a mystery every day out here on the water. Every time I’m out here, I learn something new. I’ll never truly figure it all out!” Marc laughs, “I want my son to know the beauty of Mother Ocean as well as Poseidon’s Glory! If he doesn’t want to be an oyster farmer, I’m completely okay with that. But at least he’ll know what it’s all about and go forward into the world with a solid work ethic.”

The Margaret M and our scow glide in unison into their respective dockside berths as lines are tossed and secured to ancient rusty cleats. Jim Marco, the man behind the operation hops gingerly from the Margret M onto the wooden pier below and saunters toward us as he smiles through his neatly trimmed white mustache. Jim, tall and lean, looks to be in his mid-sixties but struts forth with a youthful purpose. He extends a leathery hand and makes proper introductions. “Thanks for coming out and seeing what we do here. Come on. Let’s get out of the sun and have a chat.” Jim leads us into the shade and invites us to sit at a wooden picnic table. Jim is all about business and swiftly leads us into the history of Mystic Oysters. Pointing out to the river he says, “These oyster grounds have been continually farmed since the early seventeen hundreds. There is a long track record of success here and it’s a rich part of Connecticut history with the sea.” Jim removes his sunglasses revealing kind and smiling eyes that exude patience and wisdom. “I always like to say to people that oysters are one of America’s first foods. This is a food that grows naturally; they’re good for you and they clean up the environment. Oysters sure have a lot of plusses.” Jim Pauses and his smile widens, “They also give us a living!”

Jim explains how the defunct farm drifted into obscurity during the mid-twentieth century. The previous owners had long ago dissipated and the grounds lay unattended for a few decades. “On a wing and a prayer, I purchased this operation. I didn’t know how it would go, but I dove in headlong and the business seemed to turn around little by little over the years.” Purchasing the business was a big gamble and he knew that only hard work and ingenuity would salvage the once proud and profitable co-op. Jim chuffs a hardy laugh. “I had a good amount of experience working with clams and oysters, but I never had to run the business end of things. I can tell you that I’ve learned more than I care to tell over the years. But here we are! It’s a day by day game of survival, but we seem to keep squeaking by. It’s people like this that really keep us going.” Jim says this as he thumbs toward his loyal protégé Marc. The expression on Marc’s face exudes a humble and grateful countenance at this compliment from his mentor’s sincere accolade. Master and student meet eyes and nod in appreciation.

The reflective mood is abruptly broken as Jim’s hands come down to slap his knees, “Well, let’s have a few. Marc, go grab us some shucking knives and let’s give our guests a treat.” Marc grins in delight and hurries off. He quickly returns with two blunt wood-handled knives, a big platter, and a dozen select oysters. Jim and Marc then begin splitting the oysters open with blinding efficiency and suddenly raw Mystic River Oysters are offered. Without hesitation, my mouth slurps the salty, tangy meat and slides down. The fresh oyster is delicious. Kate waves her hand in reluctant refusal and lets the fellows in on her vegan lifestyle. Jim laughs and says, “Oysters don’t have eyes or feet, they’re basically plants!” A chuckle erupts from the four of us and the boys toast with a raw oyster in each hand. “Down the hatch boys!” Jim says as we indulge the finest Oysters eastern Connecticut has to offer.

For the freshest native Oysters Connecticut has to offer, visit Jim and Marc at 100 Main St. Noank, CT