Deep Sea Treasure

Cottage City Oysters

by Remy Tumin

Cottage City Oysters

Ray Ewing

The light wake of a ferry on a summer morning is one of the first indications of movement throughout Vineyard Haven harbor. The sun creeps up and casts a startling reflection as boats slowly begin to move off the docks. The Vineyard Haven rowing team pulls hard on their strokes as they go about their morning routine.

But just on the other side of the drawbridge, in Oak Bluffs, there’s activity going on beneath the surface. The Vineyard’s first offshore oyster farm, Cottage City Oysters, is underway off Eastville Beach, where brothers Dan and Greg Martino are in their first full commercial season of oyster farming.

Dan, 33, and Greg, 30, grew up in Houston, Texas. Becoming oyster farmers on Martha’s Vineyard may seem like a jump from landlocked, oil rigged, ranching Texas, but once the brothers landed on the Vineyard nearly 10 years ago, the bigger picture of what they wanted to do became clear. Inspired by the Island’s bounty and entrepreneurial spirit, they decided to start their own business.

It took a couple of years for the Martinos to work their way through Oak Bluffs town boards and a rigorous business development process, but eventually the brothers were ready for action just off the shoreline of the town beach.

“Have you seen the farm?” Dan asked me one recent July afternoon.

This is, of course, a trick question. Cottage City Oysters isn’t visible above ground.

“One of the intriguing things to people is you can’t see it, but you want to know what’s going on underneath the water.”

The oysters grow in cages on the bottom of the sea floor, far out of sight from the kayakers and junior sailors cruising above. Once the oysters reach full size, about three inches, the Martinos will haul them up with a crank, empty them onto the culling board and sort out which ones are big enough for market.

Before the Martino brothers dropped their first cage, they went to train with the best: Jack Blake, owner of Sweet Neck Farm in Katama Bay. For deeper study, they researched other oyster businesses across the country to figure out how they could adapt new methods as their own.

“The network of oyster farms is really cool,” Greg said. “Everybody has their eye on everybody to figure out more sustainable methods; you can’t just go to the store and buy this stuff.” This stuff includes a tumbler to sort the oysters for size, a power washer that sources seawater, and solar panels to make it all work.

“We looked at the Katama guys and augmented [what they were doing] to grow on an open ocean,” Dan said. “Last year was an experiment; we knew we’d have different predators, different weather, different tides.”

Every farm is different. “We get pounded by Nor’easters and in the pond you’re protected, but in the summer we’re aided by the southwest winds. It’s a give and take. It can be glass out there, like today,” Greg said.

This year Cottage City Oysters will bring roughly 30,000 oysters to market. Next year, they’ll shoot for 100,000.

“The demand is there,” Greg said. Cottage City Oysters are currently sold at the Net Result. Slurp ’em at the counter (or in your car on the go), carefully balance them out to the picnic tables, or take them home, destined for the grill. (A few minutes over the coals will pop them right open.) For dine-in offshore oysters, try them on the half shell at the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company in Oak Bluffs.

Cottage City Oysters taste different than other Island oysters. Greg and Dan are still trying to put their finger on it, but there’s definitely something distinctive to these briny, sweet jewels. “They’re complex, but there isn’t a lingering mineral-type taste after- wards,” Greg said. “It’s like an on and off switch.”

How oyster notes differ may have something to do with what the oysters themselves eat. Oysters in Island ponds have a constant supply of phytoplankton and algae, provided by the ecosystems of the neighboring land. But Cottage City Oysters don’t have the same dietary consistency.

“Our phytoplankton comes off of Greenland, down past Maine, swirls around George’s Bank and into Vineyard Sound,” Dan said. “We’re experimenting now by tracking what phytoplankton are coming to the farm, when, and how it effects the taste. We hope to develop a flavor profile based on the seasons.”

Dan and Greg have worked together on projects for years leading up to their oyster business, and know all too well the challenges of working with family.

“A lot of people can’t work with siblings, but we’re able to. We bump heads, but there’s so much to do and so many aspects to it, there’s no time for that,” Greg said.

Most of the work is divided naturally between the two brothers, but there’s one task they make sure to switch off.

The only thing we really split is who gets to drive the boat,” Dan said.