After Rick Karney makes a public appearance, or gives a talk, the audience lingers. People wait around wanting to speak with him. They’ll even follow him out of the building. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. He doesn’t get the nickname “The Elvis of Shellfish” for nothing.
I invited Rick over for lunch to talk about his four-decade career as a biologist, the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, and all things aquaculture on the Vineyard. I had the honor of Rick shucking the raw oysters for our meal. You might hear my camera go off a couple times.
RK: There are different ways of opening these. I usually go in through the bill. So you have to get your knife in there, the little hole there. And then, run the knife to cut the abductor muscle. That is a beauty, look at that: how nice and fat that is. It’s nice and creamy.
The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group is responsible for spawning oysters, quahogs, bay scallops and mussels. It works with local shellfish constables to the stock the saltwater ponds with this seed, all around the Island.
These bivalves play an important role not just at our tables, but they keep the water clean as filter feeders. Rick estimates that they will have spawned over 4 billion shellfish during his tenure. Many end up in the raw bars at restaurants and catered events, and on our plates next to lemons, horseradish, and Tabasco sauce.
RK: (slurping) Ummm… You’re not supposed to make noise when you eat. These are nice and briny. Katama Bay is a high-salt environment. There’s a sweetness to them. That’s usually a result of the fact that they’re really plump, so there are starches in there. They taste like you’re on the beach. You know the way the beach smells? It’s that ocean air, that’s what’s so cool about these things.
There are 17 working oyster farms in the waters around the Vineyard. Twelve of them are in Edgartown.
RK: They pick up the essence of where they’re living and how they’re cultured. If they’re cultured off the bottom, as they do it in Katama Bay, for the most part they’re kind of a lighter flavor. They’re not as minerally as if they were grown on the bottom.
Rick and his team provide technical assistance and training for people who want to become oyster farmers. In many ways these shellfish farmers are actually a lot like farmers working the land.
RK: What is interesting is that a lot of the fellows involved also had gardens. And it’s interesting that in my work at the hatchery, the people who have been most successful like to grow things - whether it be vegetables in your garden, or shellfish in the hatchery.
Oysters, especially raw ones are evocative. Even Rick the scientist can’t resist quoting a French poet over our weekday lunch.
RK: A raw oyster is like kissing the sea on the lips.
For Rick, the taste of an oyster reflects a time and place.
RK: When people talk about coming to the Vineyard and they want to experience the Island, how better than to eat a raw oyster? Because you really are tasting the natural environment in a way that’s most pure.
RK: But the flavor is based on the water quality. So the water quality has to be there. You have to be in a good place, where you’re going to have just the right amount of salt in the water, the right kind of phytoplankton, and the algae growing that they feed on that will give them a sweet taste. A lot of it is place related.
Rick’s achievements and contributions to the environment and education, to fishermen and oysters farmers, and to us eaters, is his legacy. His exit is bittersweet, but he’s ready - even when he jokes that his staff threatens to change the locks, so he doesn’t just keep working.
RK: After many years you kind of think well, I did my part. At the same time, this job has always been like more of a mission than a job. So you can quit a job, but you can’t quit a mission. I’ve strived to make it a team effort - I think that is so important to our success. I used the oyster metaphor: We’re all a reef, and a reef is stronger when we’re all cemented to each other like oysters, and that’s how we’re going to prevail. It’s not just one oyster out there by itself, because it’s not going to make it. We gotta think more “we” and less “me.” I brought it to this point, I’m happy, I’m proud of what we’ve done - and I just hope that it continues.