Fundamentals of Shellfishing: The Farm

What is oyster farming?

Great question! When “farm” comes to mind, the immediate image is most likely a combine harvester running through rows of grain. But this is a fish farm, not a grain farm, right?  Next, the image is of bubbling pools, so thick with farm-raised salmon that you could not put your hand through to the bottom. Hormones and feed pumped in one end, waste pumped out the other. Fish farming is terrible for the environment, so oyster farming must be as well, right? Wrong!

A northeastern oyster farm is plopped in the middle of open water, more than likely comprised of one or two people obsessing over the quality of their crop, pouring their hearts into these little animals and praying to any power that will listen for nature to be kind this season. The slightest sign of an oil leak causes a full-on inspection of the boat, because oysters don’t like oil. Cramped growing areas may represent efficiency in some industries, but on an oyster farm they represent a higher likelihood of mortality and/or a misshapen oyster. Dirty equipment means unhappy oysters, so we obsess over bio-fouling (like seaweed and algae blooms,) and gear is constantly being powerwashed to maximize waterflow to the little guys. In the world of foodies, I have never run across a “chicken breast connoisseur,” but we as oyster farmers are growing an animal that will arrive to a table full of critics, raw, with our name written right across the menu. This knowledge, paired with the seemingly-innate obsession with quality that comes with most New England oyster farmers, is what makes our oysters such a special experience in the food industry.

Oyster farmers seem to not only abide by regulations, they exceed them. For example, in Massachusetts the main rule (there are many others) for selling oysters is that they must be 3″ from hinge to lip, but in many cases this is only a prerequisite for a proud farmer. Too pointy, too thin, too curved, or just plain too ugly are a few of the reasons I’ve heard for oysters not making it through a cull. (Culling is the process by which already-harvested oysters are selected, graded, and then bagged for distribution.) Organic? There is a reason an oyster is called a “kiss from the sea.” Once they make it into the water, the only real functions of a farmer is to keep the oysters at a comfortable density, and protect them from predators by use of bags or cages. Other than that, all of the nutrients an oyster gets come straight from the sea, one we hope to keep as free from chemicals as possible for the health of both our industry and our shorelines. Even an organic certification on food does not mean that there was no pesticides used, only “organic approved” pesticides. Imagine, for a moment, me standing on the bow of the work skiff, pouring a bucket of pesticide over the farm as the ocean current moves over it at a steady clip. We may as well be dumping dollar bills into the water!

Additionally, the impact of a farm on the natural habitat is carefully planned to be as low as possible. Before a site is approved for a future farm, it must be surveyed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and then by the Department of Marine Fisheries. This second inspection is to ensure that the proposed area is “historically unproductive.” This means that it can not have historical documentation of wild animals growing there within a certain period of time, as well as devoid of a significant presence of animals currently. This is for a few reasons:

  • The farm is not disrupting an existing part of the ecosystem
  • The farm is not profiting from what should otherwise be left either untouched for wild reproduction, or for recreational harvesting of clams/mussels/scallops, etc.
  • The area is historically devoid of native plant life, such as eelgrass, an integral part of the ecosystem

An unproductive site does not mean that it is unable to sustain life, only that wild life has been unable to take hold for one reason or another. A farmers intervention between nature and animal begins here, with trying to figure out (nearly always by trial and error) the best ways to raise the oysters specifically for their site. This process is neverending, subject to changes in water composition, topographical changes of the site, current shifts, climate change, and an infinitely longer list of things that I couldn’t even begin to explain.

What we have found to be the biggest hurdle with our site is the changes in topography from one end to the other. The northern border of the grant is exposed for nearly an hour and a half longer than the southern border at low tides, and because of the fluctuations in tidal changes, the southern border isn’t exposed at all for more than 1/4 of the lunar cycle. For some methods, the less exposure the better. For other methods, farmers rely on their farm being exposed for half of a tide or more, and in many places on Cape Cod the farms are so high up that they are driven out to. We have, on average, two hours on both sides of low tide that we are able to work on the grant, giving us a 4 hour window, up to 6 hours on remarkably low drains, to do what we need to do. I recently took a course on the fundamentals of aquaculture, and as one of the few students who was an active farmer, I was one of the few who did not find it perplexing, if not maddening, that the answer to any question about the success of a certain method was invariably “that depends.”

These are the things that keep me up at night.



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