Washburn Island Oysters
Breathing New Life into the Cape’s Oldest Shellfish Grant
Third generation Cape Codder Todd Stressenger and his kids would often end a good weekend’s boating with a slow tool down Waquoit Bay’s Seapit River. As the kids navigated the no-wake route winding through the marsh, they’d pass a riverside building with a deck and signage reading Waquoit Shellfish. Stressenger, a North Falmouth native, says the sign always piqued his curiosity. It must have. Today, former investment banker Todd Stressenger is the energy behind Washburn Island Oysters, also known as Cape Cod’s ground zero shell fishing grant.
If there is such a thing as oyster grant pedigree, it can be found on the Seapit River, where Cape Cod’s first shellfish grant dates to 1877 and comprises 22.8 acres. That gives it two claims to fame: it is the Cape’s earliest shellfish grant as well the largest to occupy consecutive acreage. From 1956 the grant was owned by the Kelley family. They called the business Waquoit Shellfish, which explains the sign that so intrigued Stressenger.
In the spring of 2011, Stressenger left the city and became an oyster farmer. The Kelley’s grant, which was due to expire, was transferred to him and extended 15 years. Soon after, he signed the lease for the building, working with Falmouth Conservation Committee to bring it up to standard. Today, the building sports a HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) approved food safety distribution room, complete with epoxy paint that is bleach-washed daily, and a state-of-the-art cooler. Initially, he called the grant Atlantic Oyster Holding Co., but changed the name to Washburn Island Oysters a few years ago.
Oyster farming is his career now, and it can be just as stressful as banking. Imagine having millions of oysters in the water, knowing that they are only potential income until they mature properly to the point of sale. Stressenger describes aquaculture as the new Cape Cod green industry, a viable business that actually helps clean the environment, as oysters are natural filters. He also stresses its attraction for talented youth. Washburn Island Oysters provides five local jobs in a rugged atmosphere that combines business, science, the outdoors and a sense of community with 100 percent sustainability.
I saw Washburn Island Oysters, also called Washburns, on a snowy January morning. Stressenger and two of his employees were harvesting 4000 oysters for delivery to one Boston wholesaler. The oysters needed to be on a plane by noon the following day for West coast distribution. Successful distribution requires careful record keeping, and the Department of Health can inspect the premises at any time. The oysters must be kept cold, 45 degrees Farenheit or less, they must be clean and accounted for. Oysters are tagged so their origins can be traced, and Washburns are sold all over the country. They ship three to four times a week, depending on orders, and are sent directly to Manhattan, Chicago and Ohio, as well as to wholesalers in Boston and New Bedford. At home, we can find Washburns in local restaurants during the tourist season.
As employees Jack Fricke, a wildlife sciences graduate from Virginia Tech, and Ursula Balmer, a marine biologist, packed bags of oysters, Stressenger explained the importance of luxury branding. Oysters, like wine, have their own terroir. This renders each one different according to its place of origin. Today’s particular oysters were called cocktails, small at two and a half to three inches in diameter. In Massachusetts, while the legal harvest size for oysters in usually three inches, farmers can harvest smaller ones for out-of-state sale, as Stressenger was doing. Interestingly, he insists that not eating oysters in months without an R is a fallacy. He traces that story to historic lack of refrigeration, which caused oysters to go bad in warmer months—the months without R’s. He states that cold-water oysters taste best, though, and are at their best in the fall.
In addition to growing mature oysters for sale, Washburn Island Oysters also produces seed. Ursula Balmer runs the nursery, which consists of eight-by-twenty-foot docks with silos sitting on mesh in the water containing tiny seeds numbering in the millions. Additional water is pumped over the seed as they eat microalgae. When the seed grows to an inch in size, it is put into grow-out bags, 100 oysters per bag, in tiered cages sitting on bottom floats. Their major predator is the oyster drill, a snail that acts true to its name, but they do not have problems with another common threat, starfish, due to brackish water. Stressenger and Balmer call the seed “babies”, and treasure it as such. It is the basis of their business, sold to other farmers in its tiny seed state, or grown to maturity to sell for direct eating.
The Waquoit site has a faster grow-out period than other sites, due to such factors as the water temperature, salinity factors and food, which also help determine flavor. Also unique to Waquoit is that the oysters stay in the water year round; most farmers have to pull their oysters every fall in the face of ice, wind, adverse weather and cold temperatures. This season marks the first time Washburn Island Oysters will both harvest and farm full time. Having met the goal of operating as a productive farm 52 weeks a year, Stressenger looks forward to hiring more full-time labor.
As the January sun peeped out to melt the snow, I stood on the chilly dock and tasted a cocktail oyster. Its terroir was distinctive. There was salinity in the medium-to-high briny taste, with an extremely clean finish. These oysters brand like wine and also pair well with it; they would complement a crisp dry white. The oyster I tasted was small, but it packed a delicious punch, and its shell held tangible proof of the increasing viability of aquaculture as one of Cape Cod’s local green industry.
Mary Blair Petiet, a Cape Cod Native, lives with her family in Barnstable.