Splendid Through the Centuries

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2011 / ,

Writer: Rob Conery

For generations, Cotuit oysters have been a coveted choice for holiday feasts.

Step up to the headquarters of the Cotuit Oyster Company at 26 Little River Road in Cotuit. Walk down the white shell driveway, past the combination loading dock and deck wrapped in pale blue, wrist-thick dock lines, down the path, past the beat-up work skiffs, to the dock out back. That’s where you’ll find owner Chris Gargiulo, a man rarely at a desk. “I love being outdoors, being on the water,” says Gargiulo.

For more than a century and a half, men like Gargiulo have been harvesting the beds of Cotuit Bay for the Cotuit Oyster Company, turning the name into a legend among devotees of the tasty bivalve. The oysters make their way as far afield as Chicago, the West Coast, and Canada. A “Cotuit” is a brand prized in oyster bars and restaurants around the country. And this time of year, oysters are an integral part of many a New England holiday feast.

During some rare down time in the office, with the Cotuit Bay waters rippling outside the windows, Gargiulo talks about his love of being close to the sea. Orange foul weather gear hangs neatly on racks. A couple of fishing rods are propped on the cooler. “In case I see any bonito and false albacore breaking, I want to be ready,” he says. Gargiulo’s family has been coming to the Cape for years. “My grandfather built houses here in the 1940s, in Popponesset,” says Gargiulo. His father, Richard, moved to the Cape permanently in the 1960s, and Chris has been coming here for all of his 40 years.

Gargiulo bought the business in 2004, but the Cotuit Oyster Company traces its roots to a pre-Civil War America, when the Cotuit shoreline was lined with working oyster shanties, fish processing sheds, and salt works. The company was founded in 1857 and began carrying the trademark “Cotuits R Superior” in 1932.

Today, the company headquarters are still in the same location, built to the specifications of the old oyster shack run by Ezra and Rosa Hobson (Chris still holds the shellfishing grant written in Ezra’s name from 1908). Inside, it’s modern, spartan, and clean, with little else besides a work desk, a walk-in cooler, and some stainless steel sorting tables. The sea lies outside the windows on three sides. It’s the focal point for oysters, and these are there in spades.

With the help of five full-time locals and some additional seasonal help, Gargiulo says he plants somewhere between three and six million oysters every year. Not that Cotuit Oyster Company sells that many—they lose oysters by the hundreds of thousands, too. “It’s farming,” says Gargiulo. “But I like that risk and reward.”

The oyster farmers start with tiny seeds measuring between one and 1.5 millimeters across—about the thickness of a credit card. From here the bivalves go into a series of bags, starting with a floating upweller system, which workers call The Flupsy. A small, half-horsepower engine pumps water through the gates, allowing the minerals and rich nutrients—algae and phytoplankton, mostly—to pass through, feeding the seed oysters in a predator-free environment. After The Flupsy, Gargiulo and company use one of their rugged work skiffs to move the shellfish to a series of bags with increasingly large bore meshes, which hold  the growing oysters. The oysters grow quickly at this stage. “It’s like Jiffy Pop,” says Gargiulo.

From seed to fully grown and market-ready, an oyster takes between 12 and 18 months. Gargiulo praises the clean, clear Cotuit water for the unique flavor of “Cotuits.” “Salinity is the key,” says Gargiulo. While oysters grown on the Cape are all from the same species, slight differences in salinity, mineral content, and mixing from freshwater springs produce different flavor combinations between Cotuits, Wellfeets, and Barnstable Harbors. Gargiulo says the salinity of Cotuit Bay water is between 28 and 29 parts per thousand—in other words, slightly less salty than oyster beds in other parts of the Cape.

Oyster growing season is May through October, but the work continues year-round. Whatever the season, it’s labor intensive to grow oysters, involving a sorting process of separating larger from smaller. “Ice, snow, whatever comes,” says Gargiulo. “That’s part of the risk… You have good years and bad.”

Oysters face threats from whelks, oyster drills, and other predators. Gargiulo says last year’s blue claw crabs were particularly devastating. Before Tropical Storm Irene pushed through, Gargiulo and his father had been able to get some vulnerable seedlings out of the bay and into trucks, where the oysters rode out the storm. The crop suffered only minimal damages, with Cotuit losing perhaps 12 bags of oysters out of over 2,000.

Still, the Cotuit Oyster Company is able, with five town-leased grants covering over 33 acres, to grow enough to be viable. Gargiulo says that his crew brings tens of thousands of market-ready oysters to the dock in a busy week. Cotuit Oyster Company has a retail license to sell shellfish, and—if you catch someone in the office—you can buy the delicacies same-day-fresh right out of the cooler.

The company is devoted to sustainability. The Cotuit Oyster Company building is environmentally friendly, with roof-mounted solar panels and an incinerating toilet. And the oysters are actually good for the ecosystem, each filtering as many as 50 gallons of water a day and removing nitrogen. The bivalves’ combined effect, says Gargiulo, is like removing 100 houses with septic systems from the waterfront.

The scene on Cotuit Bay after Irene makes late summer look like late fall, with trees prematurely brown, leaves already falling having been blasted by salt spray from the high winds. Oysters—and the folks who harvest them—can’t hide outdoors. But the Cotuit Oyster Company endures. One hundred and sixty four years and counting.

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Rob Conery is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod LIFE.

Rob Conery

Rob Conery writes a weekly fishing column for Cape Cod Times. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he splits time between a hobo camp in western Maine and his native Cape Cod where he has spent 45 consecutive summers walking distance to Lewis Bay. He has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE including a recent piece on Cape Cod and Islands divers, and his novel Winterland is available on Strawberry Books.