Fishers Island Oyster Farm raises oysters without impacting the environment

Walker Lourie, an employee at the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, power washes nets of oysters before they are packed and shipped at the oyster farm on Fishers Island Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. Lourie is from Middlebury, Vt., and is learning the business and plans to start an oyster farm of his own. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Fishers Island — The right way to eat an oyster, says Steve Malinowski, is raw, without hot sauce, lemon juice or any other embellishment to mask its special flavor. 

“You should never put anything on an oyster, because every oyster tastes different based on the water it’s grown in,” Malinowski said one day late last month, as he addressed a group of 18 students from the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program.

And the best time to eat a raw oyster, he adds, is in the winter, when the shellfish are rich in a substance that gives them a sweet taste.

As owner with his wife, Sarah, of the Fishers Island Oyster Farm for 35 years, Malinowski is a man who clearly qualifies as an expert on all facets of the life, marketing and consumption of this shellfish.

On this warm fall morning, after showing the students all aspects of his operation — from the salt pond where juvenile oysters are raised and the hatchery to the greenhouse where phytoplankton fed to the oysters is grown and the shipping room where they’re layered in cold packs and boxed — he took them to the dock just down the hill from his house for a taste.

Reaching into a plastic tub full of newly harvested and power-washed oysters, he demonstrated how to pry open the shell. Then he offered samples.

“I’ll try it,” said Katie Swoop, a student from Williamstown, Mass., about to taste her first raw oyster ever.

“Now don’t just swallow it, chew it,” Malinowski counseled, handing the open oyster to Swoop.

Oyster in hand, she tilted her head back, drew the slippery delicacy into her mouth, chewed and swallowed.

“It’s so good,” she said. “It tastes like the ocean.”

“All that salt you taste,” Malinowski said, “that’s a good thing. That’s because our oysters grow where they’re flushed with oceanic water from Block Island Sound.”

As owners of a unique and successful business that’s one of the largest oyster farms on the East Coast using suspension nets to grow its product, the Malinowskis are frequent tour guides for groups like the Williams-Mystic students.

After hosting the Williams-Mystic students, groups from Whole Foods and several restaurants that buy Fishers Island oysters were scheduled to visit.

Larger operations in Long Island Sound and elsewhere harvest oysters by dredging offshore beds instead of growing them in suspension nets, but the Malinowskis prefer to stay smaller and have less impact on the environment.

“From the time they leave our hatchery until they’re put in a box and sent to a restaurant, our oysters are always in some type of suspension container, off the bottom,” Malinowski said, as he showed the students the floating water circulation system used in the salt pond that the farm rents from a private landowner association. “All oyster farms are a net positive to the environment, because of all the water they filter, but we take real pride in the fact that we also have zero impact on the communities on the bottom.”

Malinowski, 60, grew up in Westbrook and earned his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University. He and Sarah met through his college roommate, Sarah’s brother.

Originally from Ohio, she had been coming to Fishers Island in the summers since childhood, so the two moved into her family’s summer house while he pursued his master’s and then doctorate in marine biology at the University of Connecticut.

While a student, he studied hard clams and decided to try clam farming on Fishers Island.

They lived on grants for a few years, and ultimately realized that the conditions on the island were more conducive to farming oysters than clams.

“We wanted to have a business where the whole family was involved, where we worked out of our house,” said Malinowski.

He and Sarah have five children and a foster child, who is now in college.

One of their sons, Peter, now runs the Billion Oyster Project in New York City, which is creating oyster reefs off Governor’s Island to restore water quality and habitat.

Sarah Malinowski handles the sales, marketing and bookkeeping for the farm and designed the signature “Absolutely Fresh” boxes their shellfish are shipped in.

By the standards of Fishers Island, with fewer than 250 year-round residents, theirs is a large operation. The oyster farm employs seven workers full-time, plus eight more in the busy summer months.

“We’re the only exporting business on Fishers Island, the only business not attached to the seasonal residents,” she said, using “export” to mean shipping product off the island, not overseas.

They grew the business gradually, never taking out a bank loan. Malinowski built the systems for the hatchery, phytoplankton growing tanks and other equipment himself, his favorite part of the job.

“I love making all these gadgets,” he said, standing amid the large tanks and water circulation system in the greenhouse where three kinds of phytoplankton are grown.

In the past few years, Steve Malinowski said, the demand for fresh oysters has grown, and the number of competitors along with it. But their competitors are also their customers.

Today, the business derives about 65 percent of its income from selling 20 million to 30 million seed oysters to other oyster farms all along the Atlantic coast.

The rest of their business is from sales of fresh adult oysters to restaurants, many in New York City and Boston.

In southeastern Connecticut, Fishers Island Oyster Farm oysters can be found at The Oyster Club in Mystic, Liv’s Oyster Bar in Old Saybrook and Tri-Town Foods in East Lyme.

“We sell 600,000 to 800,000 oysters a year to restaurants,” Malinowski said. “We’re busy all year round these days.”

To raise an oyster from the hatchery to market size, he explained, takes 18 months.

During that time, the oysters are moved from hatchery tanks to cages in the salt pond to suspension nets in an offshore area the farm leases from the state.

They also grow oysters in suspension equipment in waters of the Pawcatuck River at the Frank Hall Boat Yard in Westerly, a hedge against losing the whole crop if disease or a storm wipes out those growing on Fishers Island.

“After Hurricane Sandy,” he said, “we lost 40 million oysters. We had to buy seed that year.”

Running an oyster farm, he admits, isn’t an easy way to make a living.

There are complex regulatory requirements of state and federal agencies, ever-changing market conditions, new diseases like vibrio that bring new rules for handling of fresh oysters, and always, the vagaries of weather.

With five vessels — two of them custom designed for hand-hauling the nets of adult oysters out of the water, each weighing up to 100 pounds — and the interactions of chemistry, biology and mechanical equipment to keep track of, the job requires a unique combination of physical strength, scientific knowledge and a love of hard work.

“It is challenging,” he said. “We do the same thing every year, and get different results every year. We’ve had instances over the past 10 years where we’ve had two years in a row when everything was going good, then the next season comes along and it’s completely different and we have to alter what we’re doing.”

Clearly, though, the pride he and Sarah take in what they’ve built up outweighs the persistent challenges. That day after the Williams-Mystic students had left, Malinowski and three of his workers headed to the packing room to load his pickup truck with about 50 boxes labeled “Absolutely Fresh Ocean Grown Fishers Island Oysters … Sustainable Seafood.”

He drove the boxes, lined with Styrofoam and cold packs, to the Fishers Island ferry dock, where they were loaded on a cart for the next trip.

Once the boxes reached New London, a UPS vehicle would pick them up and deliver them.

Addresses on the boxes showed they were destined for the Blue Ribbon Fish Co. in Brooklyn; the Light Horse Tavern in Jersey City; the Lobster Place and Waverly Inn in New York City; the Steve Connolly Seafood Co. in Boston; the Kimball House Restaurant in Decatur, Ga., and dozens of other establishments. 

For his day as tour guide, oyster farm owner and oyster delivery man, Malinowski wore a T-shirt that summed up the sense of purpose that keeps him going.

On the front, around a closed loop design, were the phrases: “working with nature … preserving tomorrow … providing for today.” On the back it read: “Ecosystem facilitator.”

“That is how we like to think of ourselves, because of what oysters do for the environment,” he said.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy 

Steve Malinowski, co-owner of the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, loads up his truck with boxes of packed oysters for shipping to restaurants around the East Coast from the farm on Fishers Island on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Steve Malinowski, co-owner of the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, loads up his truck with boxes of packed oysters for shipping to restaurants around the East Coast from the farm on Fishers Island on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)

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