The Culling Process: Oyster Grades and Sizes

Culling, sorting oysters by shape and size, is an important step in getting oysters to market. Restaurants prefer oysters that have strong shells, easy to find hinges, beautiful shapes for presentation, and of course, deep cups filled with meat. Unfortunately, not all oysters are created equal, so growers and harvesters have to sort through their stock to find these restaurant beauties. Each grower has his or her own set of rules in determining what defines the highest grade of oysters, also known as "choice" or "select" oysters. Oysters that don't meet that grade are known as "standards" and are typically sold cheaper than their prettier counterparts.

The good news is there is always a home for any grade of oyster! Despite its shell shape, an oyster still has its flavorful meat inside, so commercial grade oysters, the lowest grade of oysters, go to shucking houses to become processed as shucked oyster meats. Many chefs enjoy using in-shell oysters for oyster meats and stuffing, so standard grade oysters are a good choice because they're freshly shucked and affordable.

Standard oysters vary in size and shape

Standard oysters vary in size and shape

select oysters are more consistent and uniform in shape

select oysters are more consistent and uniform in shape

Since growers and harvesters determine their own rules and grades, there are many descriptors and terms used to describe oysters. This is most obvious when it comes to oyster sizing. Each region has their set of terms to describe shell lengths, and even within a region, there are some nuances among growers.

We put together a summary of the different sizes and grades on the right to assist with your future oyster buying. All the different terms can get confusing, so we hope this chart will make it more straightforward and clear. You can save and share the chart just by right-clicking on the image.

To learn more about culling, watch the video above as Ben discusses his process on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm.

Always ask your suppliers about your oysters, like details on size and grade, because the more you know means the better buying decisions you'll make.

Chart of Oyster Grades and Sizes

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The relationship between the oyster growing cycle and supply

Standish Shore Oyster Seed

As water temperatures finally warm up, food in the water is slowly growing more abundant for our baby oysters! Around May and June, growers in New England receive their new seed to put in their oyster nursery to grow for next season's oysters.

Witnessing the beginning stages of our oysters inspired me to think about the schedule on an oyster farm. I realized as Standish oyster growers, it's an important topic for us to share with all oyster handlers and explain why suppliers should care.

The Oyster Life Cycle 101

Oysters are hermaphroditic bivalves that spawn when temperatures fluctuate drastically. In the wild, this typically happens during the summer. Depending on the oyster's environment or life stage, the oyster can be male or female, but never both at the same time. Once the oysters spawn, eggs and sperm are released into the water to be fertilized. Adult females can release as many as 5 to 8 million eggs at one time!

A great summary of the oyster life cycle. Farmed oysters spend most of their pre-seed lives in hatcheries and then move to farms for growout.

A great summary of the oyster life cycle. Farmed oysters spend most of their pre-seed lives in hatcheries and then move to farms for growout.

Once the eggs are fertilized in the water, the developing larvae float around until they are ready to attach to a resting spot. These young oysters, also known as spat, will now need ample food (and time) to develop their hard shells for protection as they grow in size.

The Oyster Life Cycle, Hatchery Edition

In many areas including Duxbury Bay, water temperatures do not fluctuate enough for oysters to spawn. If they do, there is not enough spat to collect to seed a farm. So instead of collecting wild spat, some oyster farms buy spat that has been spawned and fertilized in a hatchery. Oysters on our farm arrive when the spat is about 2mm in size.

The oyster life cycle very much dictates the growing schedule on a farm. It takes 18 to 24 months for oysters to become adults or grow to market size, approximately 3 inches. Since growers only have a finite amount of land, they also only have a finite amount of oysters they can grow on their farm. Some of that area has to be devoted to oysters that are maturing to market size. Very much like agricultural farming, growers have to plan their farming schedule to allot enough time for growout.

Understanding the Growing Cycle on the Farm

Lately, oyster supply has been really tight and in New England, much of it is due to the growing cycle. Most New England growers receive their oyster spat in late April or May when the waters are warmer and contain more food. Starting baby oysters in the winter would annihilate them. As mentioned above, it takes at least 18 months to grow an oyster to 3 inches, so if you count 18 months from April, the oysters will be ready the next October as summarized below.

Many growers are close or already out of market size oysters from the 2012 crop. Those oysters were sold last fall. Now, growers are waiting on oysters to sell from the 2013 crop, and unfortunately, the late spring this year gave these oysters a slow start. Farms also sold many of their petites in the winter from the same 2013 crop for some extra sales, so we're seeing very limited number of those as well. Summer tends to be tight months for New England oysters because market size oysters are sold out, so the oysters left are those racing to reach 3 inches or simply little spat barely mature.

So, what about wild oyster supply?

As farmed supply declines, there is some pressure on wild supplies. Wild oyster growing cycles typically follow the oyster life cycle and should technically have consistent numbers. Unfortunately, it's hard for people to leave wild oysters undisturbed. It's tempting to harvest anything market size because of the sales potential, and with climbing demand, oyster beds are being picked over in areas like Wellfleet.

Most of the pressures on wild supply, though, are due to regulations. Regulations obviously limit harvest amounts and implement sizing restrictions, but more recently, the development of vibrio regulations have had even greater impacts. As an example, the new vibrio regulations from Connecticut this summer have greatly limited the ability for fishermen to harvest Blue Point Oysters. The lack of New England oysters are definitely more noticeable now without the support of wild supplies.

Standish Shore Farm Update

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So, as we wait for our oysters to grow, we're getting the farm ready for our new seedlings that arrived in May. Last week, we finished our first grading of 2 million seed from our upweller nursery, and soon, they will get ready to grow in their aqua purses out on the tide.

We have new help on the farm and a lot to do. Even though we can't sell these oysters yet, they will be 3 inches by next fall before you even know it. We're looking forward to the warm weather and the wonderful summer winds in Duxbury Bay. A new crop for a new season -- to 2015 and beyond!

Why We Place Shellfish In Our Wet Storage System

When most people walk into our shop and see our huge wet storage tanks, they assume we are holding shellfish like lobsters in a lobster tank. The fundamental concepts of both tanks may be similar, but our wet storage system does a lot more. If you haven't seen it in-person yet, watch Ben's quick overview below.

Wet storage systems can be tedious and costly to maintain. The water that filters through our wet storage system is pumped straight from the ocean in Duxbury Bay, MA and trucked to our shop. Our water gets sent to a testing lab weekly, and if anything in the system breaks, repairs can be a substantial bill. But at the end of the day, it makes sense for us because the following benefits make it worth it:

We can "Perfectly Purge" our steamers clean

On the left is a Perfectly Purged Steamer®, which is free of grit, and on the right, a rinsed steamer that shows some specks of sand.

On the left is a Perfectly Purged Steamer®, which is free of grit, and on the right, a rinsed steamer that shows some specks of sand.

As Ben mentioned in the video, our wet storage system is primarily used to purge our steamers, also known as our Perfectly Purged Steamers®. Our Maine steamers go in to our wet storage system for at least 48 hours, which gives the steamers plenty of time to purge out any sand or grit. We did a side-by-side comparison, and the grit in the rinsed Maine steamer was actually visible to the eye! Imagine all the sand that is still sitting in the clam belly, too.

We hope anyone cooking the rinsed Maine steamers will purge them properly because eating fine sand is not a pleasant dining experience. It's clear, though, that our customers prefer their steamers already purged clean since Perfectly Purged Steamers® account for 90% of our steamer sales. Customers who pay a little more for the Perfectly Purged are paying for the reassurance of completely clean steamers and time saved from purging them. 

A study published in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research titled "Does Food Quality Really Matter In Restaurants?" found that yes, of course, food quality matters, but also that "taste and presentation were the two greatest contributors to customer satisfaction and behavioral intentions." Gritty clams are a common complaint at seafood restaurants, so it might be worth your while to consider a purged option. Thank goodness we have a wet storage for that!

It extends the shelf life on weaker shellfish species like Manila Clams and Belons

We don't believe in wet storing most of our shellfish because we want to maintain each bivalve's merroir as much as possible, but sometimes, after it has been out of the water, in a cooler, and on a plane from Washington State for several hours, it needs a drink (preferably shaken, not stirred). Manila clams, in particular, are weaker bivalves that need that extra drink. Its typical shelf life is approximately 5 days from harvest, but with a dipping in our wet storage, its shelf life can extend to another 5 days after it leaves our shop.

The same applies with our Belons. Besides wet storing them, we even band them to assist their weak abductor muscle from opening, so they arrive at their destination live. Giving them that extra drink in the wet storage system also makes them slightly more tolerable to the palate, but don't worry, you're still going to get that strong coppery finish.

We do it for our customers

Wet storage systems are few and far between in Massachusetts. There are only five in the whole state, and we're proud to have one. Aside from all the work and maintenance our wet storage requires (like pumping ocean water on windy and cold winter days, see below), it allows us to provide fresher shellfish products to our customers. So, the next time you see a wet storage date on your shellfish tag, know that your shellfish has been taken care of with a few drinks on the house and that a lot of hard work has been put in to get them fresh to you.

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.

Meet Pangea's Farm Manager -- Introducing Paul Hagan

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If growing up in New England has taught me one thing, it’s that I will always work in the seafood industry. My earliest childhood memories consist of living in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where we would go to the local lobster shack and eat fried baby Maine shrimp. On weekends, my family and I would head into downtown Portland and buy live lobster for $2.99/lb. right on the docks or fish for stripers on the Spurwink Bridge. In 1999, I moved to Duxbury, Massachusetts, and with the exception of my recent stay in South Carolina, I have lived here ever since.

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By the time I reached high school, I wanted to turn my interest in the seafood industry into a profession. Although I was young and inexperienced at the time, I was lucky enough to be entering an industry always in need of hard workers. At 16, I began working at the Back River Fish Market, and I haven't looked back since. Today, I've managed a total of four fish markets along the South Shore. I can’t help but remember all of the amazing things that I have learned from the families that owned these operations. I remember how John and Cindy Payne gave me my roots in Duxbury and set the foundation. Rick Yeats at Hanover Lobster taught me how to cut fish like a boss, and Kathy showed me how to put together the best looking fish case I have ever seen. By 22, Chef Jasper White gave me the honor of controlling his first retail fish market in Hingham, while Max Harvey taught me the wholesale side of the business. On my days off, I would drive my J12 Carolina Skiff out to the flats, dig for steamers, and help my friend, Greg Morris (one of the most skilled oyster farmers in Duxbury) cultivate some of the nicest looking oysters in Duxbury. I wanted to expand my knowledge of the industry, and as a result, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina to spend the next year training under head Chef Frank McMahon. 

Within a few short months, Frank and the crew at Hank’s Seafood molded me into one of the top sauté cooks in the largest fine dining restaurant in Charleston. For that, I am forever grateful. While I was there, word got out that I was from Duxbury, home to some of the best oysters in the world.  To prove to my chef friends in the South I wasn't all talk, I made a call to the old farm back home. The next day I had a large shipment of Duxbury Bay oysters overnighted to Charleston. The Duxburys were pulled out and placed on a plate, all within 24 hours of coming out of the water. You never truly realize how beautiful a Duxbury oyster is until you compare them to their cousins to the South (sorry guys). Soon after that, my phone started ringing off the hook. At the start it was just one restaurant looking for Duxbury oysters, then two, and then twelve. That's the moment when I decided to jump into wholesale.

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If growing up in New England has taught me one thing, it’s that I will always work in the seafood industry.
— Paul Hagan

I first heard of Pangea Shellfish a few years back when its owner, Ben Lloyd, moved to town and purchased his oyster farm. Among the townies, myself included, it was a hot topic. Who was this new guy on the bay? I heard a few rumors of his unorthodox methods regarding his cultivation techniques, but never really dug deeper. Still in Charleston, I heard that Ben was looking for someone to manage his farm and help out with the wholesale side of the business. I knew I was the perfect guy for the job. Pangea Shellfish currently carries the largest number of seasonal varieties of oysters in the world (70 to be exact). On top of that, as a wholesale company, we sell well over 100,000 oysters a week! A week later, I made the move back to Duxbury, and I've been a part of the Pangea team ever since.

In the spring and summer, I head a five-man crew here in Duxbury Bay, seven days a week. We plant our oyster seed across three acres of Duxbury Bay. We have our own custom-built upwelling system with eight silos, each containing hundreds of thousands of juvenile oyster seed. After 18-24 months they become marketable size, and we hand-select the best looking oysters to go in our Standish Shore bags. 

If you are a chef, fish buyer, or someone who just loves eating our oysters, stay tuned. The tides are turning, changes are happening, new ideas are spawning right here in Duxbury Bay. I will continue to do my best along with the Pangea family to bring you new updates about the oysters we love growing here, as well as introduce you to my fellow farmers across Massachusetts who have their own story to tell.