Considering my “Jolly” heritage—my paternal grandmother was Flossie Jolly—it seemed logical that I would be curious about The Jolly Oyster, a shellfish peddling food truck parked at San Buenaventura State Beach. What exactly is this thing, and is there really a jolly oysterman behind the Jolly Oyster?
Turns out there are two: Mark Reynolds and Mark Venus. Reynolds, the founder of The Baja Oyster Company, can often be heard in the beachside parking lot pontificating about shellfish and sustainability. “The world’s fisheries have reached their maximum sustainable annual yields of approximately 80 million tons,” he told me recently. “Meanwhile, a growing world population and changing eating habits may lead to a demand of 230 million tons of fish annually by the year 2030. The gap will be met, in part, by aquaculture. And our company is concentrating on the most environmentally friendly, sustainable sector of shellfish farming.”
But let’s take a step back and start with a quick lesson about seafood, and the definition of aquaculture.
Aquaculture: the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic plants. The practice involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions, and can be contrasted with commercial fishing, which is the harvesting of wild fish.
Now that we know what we are talking about, let’s address seafood politics. There are varying opinions about farmed fish. Initially, conscientious foodies (like me) were instructed to eat only wild fish, because farmed fish often contained antibiotics and dyes, depending on the farming methods. We were also advised to not eat certain wild fish, as the populations were dwindling. What was left? We are now learning that not only is responsible fish farming okay—it is, in certain cases, bringing species back to life.
Case in point: endangered shellfish could go the way of the abalone I used to collect on the rocky shores of Malibu as a child with my father. Little did we realize at the time that our family was harvesting and consuming 30-year-old sea creatures that would become nearly extinct. Good news: California abalone appears to be coming back in the now protected marine reserve of the Channel Islands.
And just across the channel, within eyesight of the islands, sustainably farmed oysters and manila clams are being sold to the public from a simple kiosk by the sea in San Buenaventura State Park.
Fifteen years ago, two Brits named Mark circled the globe to establish a shellfish company focused on sustainable filter feeding mollusks, including oysters and manila clams. Mark Reynolds, who’d worked in the corporate banking world in Hong Kong, Chile, and Brazil, traded his suit and tie for clam diggers and sunscreen. A 47–year-old single father of two with a Masters degree in aquaculture, he has become the face of the company. His business partner, Mark Venus, an ecologist based full-time in Baja, California, has had the aquaculture bug his entire life.
“We weren’t happy setting up just any old shellfish farm,” said Reynolds. “We wanted to find the most incredible aquaculture garden in the world.”
Growing an oyster takes time, patience, knowledge, fortitude, and a certain degree of luck. First, the oyster is spawned and larvae produced. That changes into seed, which fixes onto something (usually a rock) that is then planted in undersea boxes. There is tending and grading, among other care-giving, to do. Then it’s time to hurry up and wait. Eighteen to 24 months later, the oyster is ready to be harvested and transported back to Central California where it will be shucked and slurped.
“Mother Nature has taught me a great deal,” Mark notes in a video on the Jolly Oyster website, admitting that he “didn’t understand Mother Nature” and underestimated her force, thus gaining respect and gratitude over the years. “We are doing something that is sustainable in a completely natural environment.”
One disadvantage of mollusk farming is that they tend to live and feed off micro algae in isolated areas where there’s no electricity, water, or people—just Mother Nature. Changes in environmental conditions can kill oysters, and management is key to the success of any aquaculture farm. The partners discovered two ideal locations down in Baja, protected bays where the water is cool and there’s plenty of food (algae).
In 2011, they took their business model to the next level and went from production and wholesale distribution to selling to the public. A year ago, the California State Parks system, having reviewed their proposal, allowed a pilot program of selling their Baja shellfish in the park. If all goes well, the program could be expanded into other state parks.
And on a purely gastronomic level, it is going well. The proof is in the oyster. I have experienced pure bliss at the seafood stand in Ventura, mostly from the uniquely briny taste of the oysters themselves, but also by learning a new skill. Shucking, or cracking open, an oyster is really quite easy. All you need is an oyster knife, a glove or towel, and a wee bit of bravery. Start with the small, sweet Kumamoto oysters; they’re easier to shuck than the larger Pacific variety.
A couple of friends and I gathered recently at the State Beach for sunset Champagne and oysters. I confessed to being a klutz, but before long I was opening those petite Kumamotos like a pro. A squeeze of lemon or lime, maybe a dash of hot sauce, and… slurp. Who could ask for anything more?
The Jolly Oyster is located at San Buenaventura State Beach, 901 San Pedro St., Ventura; thejollyoyster.com, 805/968-1711.
What to Bring
TOOLS. This is not a restaurant; you’ll shuck and prepare your own shellfish. We recommend you bring an oyster knife ($5 at the kiosk), a clean cloth, and gloves.
TIPS. A cooler with ice is a good idea, as is a nice loaf of bread or crackers and some lemons and/or limes. If you plan to cook, bring charcoal, garlic, and butter.
AND TO DRINK? Pinot Gris. Sauvignon Blanc. Champagne. Wine and beer are allowed in the State Park. Make good use of this legal exception with something cold, crisp, and refreshing.