Skip Bennett on the Origins of Island Creek Oysters

WHO: Skip Bennett
LOCATION: Duxbury Bay, MA
OCCUPATION: Founder and Owner of Island Creek Oysters

THE STORY: Island Creek Oysters began as a one-man operation more than two decades ago, when Skip Bennett decided to see if he could grow oysters in his hometown of Duxbury, Massachusetts. Today, Island Creek Oysters is one of the largest oyster companies in the United States. What started as an experiment in 1992 evolved into a dynamic, multifaceted enterprise of oyster farm, wholesale operation, retailer, restaurant, caterer, and foundation dedicated to promoting aquaculture. “I think Island Creek started as a lifestyle,” Bennett says. “It is a commitment to creating a great product and doing it really well. It is a place, a product, a restaurant, a commitment to quality, and beyond that, it is a commitment to a lifestyle. Everybody is a big part of ICO. The people on the wholesale side, at the hatchery, and in the restaurant are committed to doing something really cool. It is all about people.”

THE JOURNEY: Skip grew up on Duxbury Bay, where his father fished and owned a gas station and tire shop. Skip trapped lobsters part-time throughout high school in addition to working in his dad’s shop. “I immediately fell in love with the independence and physical nature of shellfishing,” he says. Following his passion, Skip obtained a license to mussel and went on to mussel throughout college. Around the same time, mussels grew exponentially in popularity, and Skip realized that shellfishing was not only a hobby, but a way to make money. Still, he knew that due to environmental factors the industry was one in which you had no control, and therefore was difficult to count on.

When Skip graduated from Merrimack College in 1989 with a finance degree, he planned on spending a year shellfishing before moving to New York to get a desk job. He’d heard about some people growing clams in Wellfleet—an enterprise that could be controlled—and was intrigued, so he applied for a lease to begin growing quahogs. This proved to be difficult from the start, and within a few years his entire farm was wiped out by a parasite. Instead of giving up, Skip started looking for oyster seeds, eventually finding some from a family in Maine. Trying to grow the seeds, however, was yet another challenge. “It was very hard to figure out how to keep them healthy and alive. There was a lot of trial and error,” Skip says. “But we figured it out and were committed to the quality of the oysters.” You can read about ICO’s oyster farming process—from receiving seeds to planting, harvesting, and culling—here.

THE DIFFERENCE: While the path Skip chose wasn’t always the smoothest, it’s clear that it was the only path for him. “The key to my success was to follow my passion,” Skip says. “Without the passion, I would not have been able to keep trying. I love to work on the Bay in the water. I love the physical, independent aspects of the work I do. That is what gets me up in the morning.”

“I love the lifestyle I have created, and I look forward to going to work every day.”

In addition to his passion for shellfishing, Skip’s perseverance and willingness to take risks substantially contributed to his success. “Looking back, in the beginning all of my friends were going off to New York and getting jobs, which was the ‘right thing to do,’ and at the time my staying on the Bay following my lifestyle felt like I wasn’t doing the ‘right thing’ and that I was being irresponsible. For 10 to 15 years I had been shellfishing. The farm wasn’t making any money, and I had to dig up so many steamers. In 1998, when my second daughter was born, we named her Maya, which is Latin for ‘steamer.’” Maya, who is now 15, will work in the retail branch of Island Creek Oysters this summer. Her sister Samantha, 17, has worked on the farm for the past three years.

THE PERKS: When asked about his favorite way to eat oysters, Skip’s answer generates more than a little envy: “Most of the time I will eat them straight out of the water or on the float.” What about when he’s a bit more landlocked? “I really love a well shucked oyster that is cold with a little lemon juice and hot sauce.” His favorite beverage pairings? “A good stout goes well with oysters,” Skip says. “And for a wine pairing I love Moscato and Riesling.” If reading these recommendations has left your mouth watering, never fear: you can order your own Island Creek Oysters here.

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE: The Island Creek Oysters Foundation supports projects promoting the use of aquaculture as a sustainable food source and educational programs that promote aquaculture’s potential. Recently, the foundation partnered with Duxbury Middle School to create an after school Aquaculture Club enrichment program and is working with Egan Maritime Institute’s Sea of Opportunities to help expand students’ knowledge of aquaculture through field trips, guest speakers, and science activities. “When I was growing up, I wanted to study marine biology, but it didn’t seem very smart to pursue because there wouldn’t be jobs out there in that field when I grew up,” Skip says. But now that the field is growing, Skip hopes to spark students’ curiosity in the field and show them all the opportunities that aquaculture can offer. “Yesterday we had all of the kids in the hatchery and all of them were really interested, and they asked so many thoughtful questions. It is a great way to apply science and math, and to show them why they need to study those subjects—because they actually will have to apply them in real life.” You can read more about the ICO Foundation’s programs, including the tilapia fish farming kits that ICOF provides to families in Haiti and the shellfish hatchery that ICOF is helping to develop in Tanzania, here.

Island Creek Oysters // Duxbury, MA // 781-934-2028

{Images courtesy of Island Creek Oysters}