Sink ’R Swim Oyster Roast More Than Just a Party

Aug 31, 2016

To say that Corrine G. Ruff and Angela Anderson’s documentary “The Oyster Farmers” is of local interest would be an understatement. The project does deal with a local story, New Jersey baymen and the role of oyster farming in the development of the Barnegat Bay economy. But at the same time that the film tells that story, it is itself a lively community building project. And an Aug. 25 ReClam the Bay-hosted oyster roast in Haven Beach was an opportunity for many of the people involved in the community and the film to come together for an evening.

At the heart of the party, of course, was the food. Theo Gerike stood at the grill set up in the Sink ’R Swim parking lot throughout the night, grilling and preparing tray after tray of oysters fresh from the Barnegat Bay. The oysters were served with Jetty Rocktail Sauce, a hybrid hot sauce/cocktail sauce developed originally for the Island’s Hop Sauce Festival by Jetty, the film’s main financial sponsor.

That Jetty developed a cocktail sauce to sell at a beer and hot sauce festival speaks to the Jetty brand, which it is focused around a water-based lifestyle.

“The Oyster Farmers” is backed by the Jetty Rock Foundation, a charitable organization that allows for tax-deductible donations to be made to the film. Jeremy DeFilippis, the CEO/partner/founder of Jetty says that “charity and community has alway been a pillar of the Jetty brand.” The charitable organization was formed in June 2013 as a direct result of Jetty’s Sandy relief efforts.

When director Ruff went to the Jetty Rocks Foundation with the idea for the film sponsorship, she thought to herself “this hits every note that the Jetty Rock Foundation stands for. It’s community oriented, about art and culture, connecting people to the science of the bay, connecting people to protecting the bay.”

Anderson, the film’s producer, says “we approached the Jetty Rock Foundation to be our fiscal sponsor, which is common practice in filmmaking. But they also bring a marketing and social networking machine that will boost not only the film but the story well after production wraps up.”

When they approached the foundation, and DeFilippis “learned everything behind eating an oyster – the government stuff, getting a permit, the decimation of the population of oysters in the bay – it was an easy yes.”

Anderson says she and Ruff follow a community making model of filmmaking. “We generate community momentum and investment while researching and networking the story, history and characters.”

One of the characters in the film arrived at the party late, and in style. Matt Gregg, the founder of Forty North Oyster Farms, showed up with two mesh bags bulging at the seams with oysters freshly harvested from Barnegat Bay. Gregg brought the oysters to Gerike, who got right to work preparing the newest batch.

Gregg “grew up working around fishing.” His “first job was in a fish market, cleaning and cutting fish,” which served as an entry into his summer jobs through high school and college working on fishing boats in New Jersey. He says he was able to get over the smell of these jobs easily. “Eventually you start to become one with the smell. You become the smell,” he says.

Gregg continued working on fishing boats when he went to college in Rhode Island. When he returned to New Jersey, he worked at Rutgers University with the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program. All of this exposure to sea life has given him an acute understanding of the complicated relationships that make up an ecosystem like that of Barnegat Bay.

He says that while all organisms play an important role in an ecosystem, eelgrass is particularly important because it creates a habitat for shrimp and lobsters and other economically important sea creatures. Before 1970 the bay was known for its eelgrass, but as the water in the bay gets more polluted, said Gregg, “we’ve kind of blocked off sunlight and killed a lot of eelgrass.” The shellfish that Gregg harvests share in a symbiotic relationship with eelgrass because they consume algae and help process cleaner water. In this way, Gregg says, harvesting oysters is beneficial to the ecosystem as a whole.

While he was living in New England, Gregg saw firsthand how oyster farming can be beneficial to the economy of coastal states as well. Massachusetts has almost 300 oyster farms along its coastline, compared to only 20 here in New Jersey.

According to Gregg, the disparity is due to public policies that create “a huge barrier entry to get into oyster farming.” In Gregg’s opinion, “you shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer and go through a $20,000 permitting process” to become an oyster farmer.

Gregg compares oyster tasting with profitable endeavours like craft beer or wine tasting. “An oyster will take on the flavor of the water it grows in, just like Pinot Noir grown in California will taste different than the same grape grown in Italy.” Says Gregg, “We’re all (on the East Coast) growing Eastern Shore oysters, but our oyster is going to be different than a Long Island Sound oyster.”

One of the storylines that “The Oyster Farmers” follows is the attempts by Gregg and other state oyster farmers, particularly Dale Parsons Jr., a third generation oyster farmer, to champion oyster farming in Barnegat Bay. In doing so, the film tells the story of the history of the Mid-Atlantic region. According to the Forty North website, “Oyster hamlets were once littered along the mid-Atlantic coast. Hamlets turned to villages. Villages turned to towns. Towns turned to cities. It was the mighty oyster that built it all.” The film also tracks the resurgence of this community, through the work of New Jersey’s oyster farmers.

In “The Oyster Farmers,” says Gregg, “we’re telling the story of this region through the oyster.” But in truth, whatever species is coming out of the water, the oyster roast was about building community first and foremost.

— Tim Hone

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