Lessons of Winter On the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

Winter in Duxbury... It's been a real difficult one, thank god it's finally spring! It's hard to put into words how stressful it is for oystermen here during the winter. Imagine putting your life savings into the bay in October, tying it down, and returning in April, hoping it's all still there. I truly believe it's something you have to experience for yourself to really understand, but here's a quick overview of how an oyster farm typically operates in Duxbury:

Imagine putting your life savings into the bay in October, tying it down, and returning in April, hoping it’s all still there.

First, we purchase oyster seed from a hatchery, which usually comes in mid-May. We let it grow in an upwelling system, which basically circulates seawater very quickly around the oysters so they can filter more water and grow faster. Around July, they get moved into large mesh bags and slid into cages. They remain there until October. Sounds simple, but things get dangerous in October when the water temperature starts to plummet and the oysters go into hibernation mode.

The oysters need a safe environment until spring when they start growing again. So, farmers are left with a few options. The most common approach here in Duxbury Bay is to "plant" the seed. Which means you literally throw your seed off the side of your boat and spread it across the bottom of your lease. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious disadvantage is that you're going to lose some of your crop; I'm not talking just a few thousand oysters here, I'm talking a few hundred thousand. The oysters are fair game to crabs, fish, birds, or any other parasite that prays on baby oysters. They could get silted into the mud and never return. They could be washed away in any of the massive storms we get here in New England, or even worse, crushed by ice. After reading all these potentially negative outcomes, you're probably thinking, "So, why would anyone ever choose to bottom plant in October?"

...you’re going to lose some of your crop; I’m not talking just a few thousand oysters here, I’m talking a few hundred thousand.

We do it for one simple reason: it produces the highest quality oyster possible. The oysters planted on the bottom are like no other oyster on the market. The shells are extremely tough and durable. If you buy a bag of 100 count oysters you will receive 100 usable oysters. They don't break under the knife, which in my opinion is one of the most important traits of an oyster. They grow perfectly. There are minimal flares on the edges and very little hooked or misshapen oysters. On top of all that, the taste is second to none. This is what we are known for here.

The alternative to bottom planting would be to "cage culture" the oyster, which means the oyster spends its life growing in a cage. This has proven to grow what I call "potato chips": long, skinny, weak oysters with no cup. The bottom planting approach is what separates us from the rest and helps us grow one of the best oysters on the East Coast. It's because we go the extra mile with everything we do. Every farmer in this town cares about quality over quantity. That's the key behind our success for the last decade. My friend and fellow oyster farmer, Greg Morris, calls it "the free range look." It's a look that only we produce here, and it's made possible by bottom planting.

This winter, our farm took a different approach and added a twist to bottom planting. After tumbling the oysters one last time, we put the oysters into plastic mesh bags, and then put heavy duty zip ties on each bag. We then ran an 80 foot line through each hole on the zip tie and drilled augers into the mud to keep the lines from floating away. This less popular technique is known as "long lining." Though the seed is still in bags, they are tied down by the line to ensure they are bottom planted through the winter. This way, we are not losing our seed to Mother Nature and still being able to bottom plant.

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After checking the seed today, I think we made the right choice. We kept our two million oysters safe and sound all winter. I chalk this up to one thing: luck. Everything that happens in the winter is based on pure luck. A very skilled and seasoned oysterman from Duxbury named Christian Horne told me something a while back that stuck with me. He said, "Just because it works one winter doesn't mean it will work the next." I learned that firsthand this winter. The variables are endless: wind, temperature, tide, environment, atmospheric pressure, barnacle sets, ice bergs, the list goes on. We could have had an iceberg sweep across our long lines and take them all out to sea, but it didn't happen. Mud could have silted over the bags and suffocated the entire crop, but that didn't happen. People swore to me the seed would be to exposed during negative tides and the elements would freeze and kill the oysters, but that didn't happen either.

Now, we're here at the end of March, left with two million healthy juvenile oysters ready to be safely bottom planted and released from their wintertime prison. So, this summer when you're sitting at that raw bar, drinking an ice cold beer, and about to eat those twelve perfectly shucked Standish Shore Oysters, try and remember the journey each oyster had to make. In this industry, oysters come and go. Very few harbors are consistently pumping out a high quality product year-round, but I think if we continue to outsmart Mother Nature while respecting her at the same time, Standish Shore Oysters will be here to stay.