In today’s world, there seems to be a perception that farm-raised seafood is inferior to wild-caught seafood. Farmed oysters are a very sustainable choice and equally lovely compared to their wild counterparts. Don’t believe us? Read more for the proof.Read More
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!
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
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!
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:
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?"
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.
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.
Lately, there has been a growing perception that farmed seafood products are inferior to wild products. There has been a lot of consumer confusion on what is the healthy or sustainable choice. Although we can't speak for the fish industry, we can definitely clear up any confusion on oysters!
Watch Dan's video to learn the differences and similarities between wild and farmed oysters.
Here's the transcript of Dan's run-down on wild and farmed oysters:
Dan, is there a difference between farmed versus wild [oysters]?
Yes, absolutely there’s a difference. As the name suggests, wild oysters are out in the wild. They don’t get touched prior to being harvested, so they are a "little rough around the edges," so to say. The farmed oysters are quite a bit more consistent in shell shape from one to the next. This [shell] is pretty and very consistent in what I would find in a 100 count bag of farmed oysters.
Typically, wild oysters will grow a little bit slower than farmed oysters, which allows their shells to harden up a little more and also allows them time to grow their meat content, so the meat content tends to be a little bit more. On the flip side, farmed grow a little bit faster. That is usually by choice. Farmers want to get their product out to the market as fast as they can, typically anywhere from 18 month to 36 months.
What makes oyster farming unique versus other types of seafood farming?
What makes oyster farming unique is that it actually takes place out in the wild. So, these oysters are literally growing out in the harbor (these are actually Mayflowers from Dennis, MA). So you go out in to Cape Cod Bay, and you’ll find these oysters sitting in cages out there, eating the same food as any wild oyster would in that same area. Their getting the same water so they have the same flavor.
Most of the fish farming that goes on is in secluded areas, all approved areas. They have to be fed certain foods. It’s not fish swimming around in the ocean gathering their own food, so there’s definitely a difference between the two, which makes oyster farming unique. Same as fish farming, [oyster farming] makes oysters sustainable at the same time. I’d say over the past ten years, oyster farming has really overtaken the wild fisheries. A lot of the wild fisheries have been overfished just like fishing, and the numbers have really dwindled over the last ten years.
When it comes to chefs and restaurants, is there a preference for wild or farmed oysters?
I don’t think so. I think most chefs are just looking for a good quality oyster, something that presents well in a showcase, has good meat content, and also has good flavor. In my experience with the restaurants we sell to in Boston, they’re really looking for recommendations to spruce up their raw bar whether it’s a wild unique oyster or a farmed beauty. It doesn’t really matter. I think they’re just looking for the quality.