Winter Effects On Oyster Quality

From February to April, we tend to see quality issues on certain varieties of oysters. It’s something that happens each year, so we put together this FAQ to help address your winter concerns.

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What are oysters doing during winter?

When we’re asked to think of animals that hibernate, bears, bats and other small mammals usually come to mind. But did you know, oysters also “hibernate” during the winter? Contrary to children’s books and fairy tales, animals in hibernation are not sleeping. Hibernation is a form of dormancy in which animals conserve energy to survive harsh environmental conditions. Oysters go dormant during winter because water temperatures can stay below freezing for months. Evolution has also taught them that there is no food in the water when everything is iced over.

How do oysters survive their winter dormancy?

To prepare for winter dormancy, oysters feed like crazy during the fall to build up glycogen, their sugar stores — which is why they are so sweet in autumn. When the water temperatures drop to 40° F, it signals the oyster to stop metabolizing and go dormant. The oyster will barely pump during this time and survive on its glycogen to get through the winter. When the waters warm up and food is back in the water, the oysters will become active again and start feeding. They will pump, filter, and eat from spring to fall until water temperatures drop again, triggering another cycle of dormancy.

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What is winter kill?

Inevitably, there are oysters that will die during winter dormancy. This phenomenon is called winter kill. Oysters run out of glycogen to stay alive or they are too weak to withstand the harsh conditions. The worst part is, some of these oysters die remaining shut. This makes them difficult to detect even when harvesters go through them by hand.

What are some signs of winter kill?

Because some oysters die shut, they cannot be detected until they are shaken up or shucked open to reveal dry, shriveled, smelly meats. Dormant oysters are weaker and have difficulty healing themselves, so any chipping during harvest, culling, packing, or transit can lead to liquor loss.

Once we hit late February and into March, we are basically asking the oysters to do the most impossible journey possible. Out of the water, through the packing house and shipped across the [Canadian] border by refrigerated truck. If at any point in that journey, the oyster [attempts] to feed or gets jostled in a harsh manner that loosens the abductor muscle, the oyster will spill some of its precious liquor and there’s no opportunity to replace the liquor… The oyster will not likely open again until spring when he’s either bone dry from survival or is sufficiently convinced that the water temperatures are steady again.
— Jacob Dockendorff, PEI Producer

Why does winter kill affect certain varieties more than others?

If you are a Pangea Shellfish customer, you will notice that certain oyster varieties are unavailable from March to May like wild-harvested Malpeques. These are the months when winter kill is most apparent, and Canadian supply is a great example.

Canadian waters get colder earlier in the year than locations down south. This also means the oysters enter dormancy earlier than its southern brethren. If a Canadian oyster enters dormancy in early November, it may not start feeding again until May when waters warm. It basically needs to survive on its glycogen that whole time! It’s impossible to ask the oysters to be in tip-top shape from March through May when they have not eaten for six to seven months.

You will also see signs of winter kill in New England oysters as we approach March, but it’s not as noticeable because their dormancy period is shorter. New England oysters are likely feeding until the end of November and start feeding again in late March. They have to survive about four months compared to the six months Canadian oysters endure.

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI.  Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI. Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period. Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA.  New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA. New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters. Source: NOAA

Which varieties are less susceptible to winter kill?

Winter kill is less of an issue for southern varieties because of warmer water conditions, but generally, farmed oysters have a better chance of survival than wild oysters. Growers make sure their oysters have the best access to food throughout the year and condition them to have stronger abductor muscles. Farms also have different wintering and culling methods to tackle winter kill and limit its effects on product quality. So, despite Canadian oysters being more susceptible, many of the cultured Canadian varieties look nice throughout the season.

When will quality improve?

When the oysters finally start pumping and feeding again, it will take a couple of weeks for their quality to improve as they replenish themselves. Timing will vary by area because water temperatures differ by location, but we will see most varieties in better shape by late May.

Is there anything I can do to limit the effects of winter kill?

Yes! Be gentle. The oysters are weak, so any tough handling will result in dry or dead oysters. Give them extra attention and protection, especially in transit.

If you encounter a smelly bag, make sure to go through the bag or box because it could just be one dead oyster responsible for the smell. Discard the dead and rinse the rest. The remaining live oysters are just fine!

If there are any issues, contact your supplier. Dead oysters can go unnoticed until shucked, so giving your supplier feedback can help them assess the situation.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Special thanks to our Canadian producers for contributing to this piece.

Have a winter quality question not listed here? Ask it in the comments section below.

Outlook on Oysters 2017

Outlook on Oysters 2017

This year was a roller coaster of events. We had a mild winter which alleviated some stress from ice outs of years past yet we were more susceptible to algal blooms, recalls and closures from the summer’s drought. We saw more oyster bars popping up all over the country as the Nation’s appetite for bivalves is becoming more insatiable. Here is the start of what may be in store for 2017. 

Read More

Spring 2016 Oyster Supply Update

Starting to notice the limited oyster supply lately?

It’s that time of year again...

Oyster supply varies from year to year because you never know what Mother Nature has up her sleeves. But one trend is clear: oysters always tend to be limited from spring to early summer.

This past winter has been one of the mildest winters we have seen, and compared to last year, it was a cake walk. Product availability was better because harvesters were able to access their oyster beds, and they had plans for the worst. Every spring, though, oyster inventories dwindle, and farms go offline, leaving a void in supply as we are starting to see now. Oysters will stay limited until early summer as growers wait for their crop to reach market size.

The good news is if water temperatures continue to stay agreeable, farmed baby oysters will be ready earlier this summer than in years past. Overall oyster supply will begin to recover in May when wild Canadian oysters become available. Until then, we appreciate your flexibility and understanding during the limited season.

For the full supply update by area, read on below.


New England farm inventories running low

As mentioned in the summary above, New England oysters become limited during the spring because farms run out of market-sized oysters or they stop harvesting to focus on seed and gear work. Some growers will continue to sell their petite oysters, but others will choose to wait until late summer or fall when their oysters reach 3.5 inches.

In addition to fewer farmed varieties, we will stop seeing wild Massachusetts oysters from town-managed areas when the season closes in April. These shellfish areas are typically open from November to April each year.

We won’t be able to drag until May. Oysters can get chipped in the process, so they need to be pumping in order for them to heal.
— Ben on harvesting by drag

New England supply is limited, but not non-existent. Some farms have supply to go year-round and others still have inventories that will last well into the summer. One thing growers will still face is bad weather. Terrible winds even on a beautiful sunny day can make it dangerous to be out on the water.

Growers aim to increase production each year, so when oyster farms gradually come back online, New England supply will improve.

Canadian Maritimes still dealing with ice and limited inventories

The Maritimes is a powerhouse region for oysters, so when Canadian oyster supply starts to wane, the market definitely feels it. As temperatures warm in the spring, iced over areas start to melt. This ice makes it difficult for oyster growers to access their beds: it's too thick to penetrate easily, but too thin to support any weight safely.

Winter kill is another problem. If dead oysters are not caught during a farm’s culling process, they can open during transit and stink up a whole bag. It only takes one party foul oyster to ruin the other ninety-nine perfectly fine oysters. We had so many issues with winter kill in the past that we decided to wait until quality improves on certain Canadian varieties before offering them again.

Maritime farms are also dealing with limited inventories. Farmed oysters take much longer to grow there than in New England. Sometimes it takes four to five years for oysters to reach market size, so when a farmer is out of oysters, the farm may go offline until the next crop is ready.

Once the ice clears, Canadian oyster supply will be in better shape, helping overall supply. Farms will be able to get their oyster gear back in the water, and oystermen can go back to harvesting wild oysters such as Malpeque Oysters.

Supply stable in other regions, but may be affected by warmer water temperatures

Spring supply for oysters from Long Island Sound, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Pacific should stay relatively stable barring any bad weather. However, since waters seem to be warmer earlier this year, there could be earlier closures around the country. When areas in the Gulf are closed, Mid-Atlantic demand increases putting pressure on the region’s supply. Pacific oysters may spawn earlier affecting product quality, and vibrio regulations may necessitate closures.

Ellen M. Banner for the Seattle Times

Ellen M. Banner for the Seattle Times

With all things considered, the oyster supply forecast is looking pretty good for the summer and fall. So let's enjoy the sun, get through the spring, and ramp up for this summer's seafood season. As always, ask us if you need help finding substitutions or would like a recommendation with fairly steady supply. We're here for your oyster needs!


Our 2016 Outlook For Oysters

As more consumers become acquainted with oysters, more restaurants are taking advantage of the trend. Oysters are becoming more ubiquitous than ever, and it shows no signs of stopping. These days, they’re no longer making a comeback. Instead, they’re taking center stage. So what’s next for the oyster in 2016?


The growing petite oyster market

Over the last three years, the demand for oysters has accelerated noticeably. This trend can be attributed to a number of reasons, but a main one is the popular use of oysters during Happy Hour. More restaurants are employing this tactic to draw customers in or drive alcohol sales. These “Dollar Oyster” deals can now be found at the local pub or even the neighborhood pizza joint.

In the past, Dollar Oyster selections were typically commodity oysters like Blue Points, Chesapeakes, or Malpeques. The cost of these oysters allow the dollar deal to be worthwhile. However, as diners become more oyster-saavy, restaurants are looking to make Happy Hour selections more exciting, thus creating a market for petite oysters.

Petite sizes cost less than their Select counterparts, so with this lower cost option, restaurants can offer premium varieties like a Cape Cod oyster during Dollar Oyster happy hours. Aside from happy hour use, this option has also created an opportunity for restaurants that are more cost-sensitive to have quality oysters on their menu. There seems to be a growing preference for smaller oysters too, which could be driven by newer oyster eaters uncomfortable with larger meats.


Growers have definitely taken advantage of the petite market because it allows them to sell their oysters sooner, sometimes too soon. Depending on the farm, this could mean less Select sized product or running out of oysters before their fall peak when quality is best. It is illegal to serve petite East Coast oysters in certain states like Massachusetts, so please check your local regulations. The petite oyster market is here to stay, and we will probably see more customers shift to this lower cost option with rising freight costs and more pervasive dollar oyster deals.

The spread of oyster aquaculture to the South



With wild oysters on the decline, southern regions have looked to oyster aquaculture as an option to bring oysters back. In the Chesapeake Bay, oyster aquaculture thrived in Virginia because it was fairly straightforward to obtain a private lease. So, when Virginia’s oysters were depleted, watermen were able and open to adopting aquaculture. In Maryland, however, it was not until the last few years when leasing was finally streamlined. Since then, “[Maryland] has issued 111 oyster farming leases across 2,240 acres of waters.” This rapid growth of oyster farms has caused conflict with Maryland’s watermen, who argue farms limit the areas they can access, and with residents of waterfront homes, who find the oyster cages to be unappealing.

In the Gulf, the first oyster farm was started in 2009. Point aux Pins Oysters of Grand Bay, Alabama is now the largest Gulf off-bottom oyster operation. More watermen are now exploring aquaculture and trying to figure out how to distribute their oysters to the half-shell market, a market opposite of Gulf oyster culture where oysters are seen as commodities. The first major Gulf oyster hatchery also opened this year, which will provide more opportunities to explore aquaculture in the region.


We will most likely begin to see more half-shell friendly oysters from the southern states. Regions with wild fisheries will transition more to oyster aquaculture despite conflicts that will need to be resolved by state regulators. Demand for southern oysters in the Northeast will remain very limited, but the south may see a shift in the commodity oyster culture in the near future.

chesapeake brand 4.png

New oysters and brands will continue to come on to the market. Marketing will be key for farms to carve out a niche position in a saturated space, and to attract loyal consumers and chefs.


East Coast supply potentially very limited in winter and spring

In 2015, we saw one of the worst winters in New England. Unfortunately, this caught a number of farms off guard. Some oyster growers had to endure significant losses while others had to deal with winter kill in the spring. These lost oysters would have been sold as markets in the fall that usually create a fall glut. There doesn't seem to be as much around as usual this time of year, which could be a sign that growers have lower inventories.

icebergs on the beaches of cape cod. Photo by Dapixara via the washington post

icebergs on the beaches of cape cod. Photo by Dapixara via the washington post


With less to sell, growers will run out faster earlier in the year. This scarcity will become noticeable in the spring and summer when demand is outpacing supply and growers are either sold out or waiting on their seed to reach market size. Any seed lost this past winter will also affect the amount of supply in fall 2016. East Coast supply outside of New England will depend on the weather. If bad winter weather immobilizes areas like the Canadian Maritime or the Chesapeake, we will see a significant shortage again this coming winter.

More potential West Coast closures and stricter regulations

Warm water temperatures caused many area closures on the West Coast this past summer, which limited Pacific oyster supply. If areas were not closed, oysters showed signs of spawn and quality was not ideal. In British Columbia, illegal sales of shellfish caused a high reported number of shellfish illnesses. New England had a fairly quiet summer season aside from the closures in Katama and Duxbury.


If the global warming trend continues, water temperatures will also continue to rise causing more area closures and triggering oysters to spawn earlier. West Coast supply will be limited again during the summer. Proposed protocols and regulations to test oysters might be implemented in regions like British Columbia, but the process could be cumbersome, potentially limiting product coming out of those areas. In Katama and Duxbury, new vibrio regulations are being discussed like a one-hour harvest window. Again, these rules will make it harder for growers to harvest and supply the growing demand during the busy summer months.

And that's a wrap on 2015! We hope Mother Nature is kind to us next year, but we'll just have to wait and see. Aside from all the oyster and shellfish talk, though, there's one important thing we have to acknowledge: our growing and amazing community.

Thank you for an awesome year. We wouldn't be able to do what we do without your support! Enjoy the holidays and we hope you get to ring in the new year with some oysters!

Winter 2015 disrupting Northeast shellfish supply

This year's winter weather has really taken a toll on shellfish supply. "I don't remember it being this bad since the 80s," Norm recalls. Of the many farms we reached out to, Norm Bloom and Son in Norwalk, CT was one of the handful that was still able to get out and harvest shellfish. Even as a larger shellfish producer, Norm and team has found it difficult to operate in this weather, too.

The eastern side of Duxbury Bay, MA where some of our standish shore oysters are harvested. Taken on Feb. 16, 2015.

The eastern side of Duxbury Bay, MA where some of our standish shore oysters are harvested. Taken on Feb. 16, 2015.

Ice and frigid temperatures have been the main culprits for this winter's shellfish shortage. Many of our growers cannot access their farms because the ice is so thick. Some areas have called in the Coast Guard and icebreaker boats for help. Mussel and clam supplies have been hit especially hard. Major mussel producing areas like Prince Edward Island and Maine have been completely frozen over, and it is almost impossible for New England clam diggers to reach the ocean bottom.

Floating ice is also very dangerous. Even when moving slowly, 6-inch-thick ice can easily puncture a hole into a boat with a wooden or fiberglass hull. Unless you have a boat with a steel hull, it is pretty risky to sail out when the ice is broken up.

Aside from ice, there are regulations in many towns that do not allow shellfishing when the air temperature is 28º F or below. Law or not, shellfishing in these temperatures is not ideal because the shellfish will literally freeze to death when it makes contact with the air once out of the water.

So where's the supply in the Mid-Atlantic then? Isn't it warmer there?

Some parts of the bay have been frozen for the whole month of February. People don’t realize the hardship that a hard winter puts on us.
— Robert T. Brown, President of the Maryland Watermen's Association

The Chesapeake Bay has brackish water -- water that is saltier than freshwater, but not as salty as seawater. Salty seawater is more dense, so it tends to sink to the bottom where it's warmer. The surface of the Chesapeake's brackish water, however, has completely iced up after enduring numerous inches of snow and long periods of subzero temperatures. Like New England, there has been very little oyster and clam production. The Baltimore Sun does a great job covering the Chesapeake in-depth and also provides an aerial view of the bay if you would like to learn more.

What should we expect for supply in the next few months?

Good news is temperatures are going to start warming up in the next few days (and weeks, we hope), which will provide a window for the ice to thaw and allow some growers to access their farms. Bad news is winter kill can be a common problem. Possible reasons for shellfish mortality include being frozen by the ice, smothered by vegetation or silt, or being simply too weak to last through winter hibernation.

With those considerations in mind, we do expect shellfish supply to improve, however, oyster varieties will continue to be limited through late summer. Oyster supply will depend on the rate of winter kill and the volume of market product remaining from this past fall.

We ask for your patience, understanding, and flexibility as we weather through this difficult time of year. Please educate your colleagues and customers now as supply may become more limited. And of course, please thank your local fishermen, oystermen, and seafood purveyors because they are working hard for you, especially during this wintry weather.

Check out the winter content from our growers below.

Stay warm out there!

Our 2015 Outlook For Oysters

The oyster experienced a renaissance in 2014. So what's in store for 2015?

As we look back on 2014, the oyster had a great year. Oysters received so much press and attention that it even got a shout out on the home page of the New York Times, accompanied with a video appropriately titled "Oysters Make a Comeback." Entering 2015, there is no doubt that this oyster craze will continue. Numerous oyster bars are slated for 2015 openings and more consumers are having oysters for the first time. They say the best way to predict the future is to look at the past, so join us as we recap the significant oyster trends in 2014 and what it means for 2015.


1. The Emergence of Oyster Farms and Branding

There are many reasons the oyster market is booming, but one of the primary reasons is the growth of oyster farms and brands along the East Coast. According to Bob from East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, production has doubled over the last five years, and he now estimates there are over 400 niche oyster brands on the East Coast alone. "It's like wine," Bob says. "There are a ton of brands and choices, and each one is unique."

Like terroir, oysters have their merroir, and this is a huge draw for chefs. The farm-to-table movement has created an excitement around understanding where and how ingredients are sourced, and this is no exception for oysters. Private labeling and exclusive distribution of brands have allowed chefs, restaurants, and distributors to tell the oyster story that is unique to them. And consumers love it, so much so that it has sparked a market for oyster farm tourism and even an app to geolocate specific oysters.


Expect to see more farms and brands appear on the market, but also a shift towards vertical integration through exclusive distribution or private labeling as players strive to differentiate themselves and capture greater market share from loyal consumers. There are oyster farms that are already vertically integrated where the farm directly supplies its own branded restaurants (e.g. Island Creek Oysters and Matunuck Oysters) and farms who grow the same oyster with multiple names for distributors or restaurants to claim exclusive distribution rights. More farms are now marketing directly to consumers to build brand loyalty and generate demand whether by shipping product direct-to-consumer or offering consumer experiences such as tours.

2. Rise In Industry Profits Draws Shady Business

As with any industry, the potential for sales and profits will draw those looking for easy money to make bad decisions. In 2014, there were some high profile cases of oyster fraud, theft, and poaching that drew a decent amount of attention from the press and the respective local communities.


Seafood fraud has been a common industry problem that extends beyond oysters. However, as more consumers and restaurants become more engaged with their food and sourcing, traceability will become a higher priority. The Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference is working on a more robust traceability plan to be released in the near future. The Vibrio regulations passed this year required growers and distributors to log harvest and transactional details, which provided more traceability, but may have been administratively cumbersome.

TIP As always, work with a reliable vendor and read the tag for yourself. If your Blue Points are being harvested out of Virginia, you are probably not buying Blue Points. This is basic stuff, but be your own detective.


3. Oyster Supply Highly Dependent On Weather

In 2014, all of us felt the winter and spring oyster shortage in some way. The brutal winter did a number on many areas and coupled with other industry factors like the Gulf oyster shortage, it threw the oyster industry into a frenzy.


Unfortunately, most of the factors that plagued the 2014 shortage have not changed. Gulf oysters are not recovering, so expect the Gulf to supplement from the Chesapeake. New England growers continue to grow more oysters each season, but demand continues to outpace supply, therefore farms may sell out again.

The wild card determining supply will be the weather. Weather conditions ranging from wind to ice can prevent oystermen from harvesting farmed and wild product. When farmed oysters are sold out, wild fisheries sustain the market until farmed oysters are back in business. If weather is bad, expect supply to be as tight as 2014.

TIP Teach and educate your customers to be flexible. Yes, I know it's hard, and they want it on their menu all month long, but weather is unpredictable. Help them understand (or refer them to our blog) about what's going on and offer multiple/back up options. Set expectations with your customers now before supply issues come up.

4. More Stringent Vibrio Regulations

Overall, the number of reported Vibrio illnesses across the Northeast at this time is low compared to recent years. Scientists suspect one reason may be that water temperatures were significantly lower than normal early in the summer, which was unusually temperate.
— Connecticut Department of Agriculture

It's obvious that Vibrio risk increases when oyster consumption increases -- more people have the potential to be exposed to the bacteria. This past summer, we saw the new Vibrio control plans in place, which regulated the window of time oystermen could harvest before icing. The short time windows limited the oystermen's catch, and therefore affected available supply. Reported Vibrio illnesses in the Northeast were "low compared to recent years," but could be due to it being cooler than usual in the early summer. Shellfish closures included Martha's Vineyard, MA and Huntington, NY. No confirmed cases were tied to Connecticut, which had a huge recall of Blue Points in 2013.


The regulators' goal is to decrease number of reported illnesses, and the 2014 results would indicate that something is working, so expect strict Vibrio regulations to continue. With that said, Blue Point supply and other affected oysters may be limited again during the summer, but hopefully, oystermen are better prepared this coming year, so supply should be at least the same or better than 2014.

So that about wraps up 2014. It's been a heck of a year, and we can't wait for 2015 and all the challenges that await. Cheers to our customers, vendors, and fans for making 2014 great, but 2015 is going to be even better, so stick around! As always, let us know how we can help, and of course #eatmoreoysters.


Special thanks to Bob Rheault of East Coast Shellfish Growers Association for contributing.

Top 10 Reasons To Be Eating (and Pushing) Oysters This Month

It has been a grueling winter, spring, and summer. Some days, it felt like playing Go Fish when ordering product. But now, the worst is pretty much behind us. We are finally reaching the best time of the year... September is here! The baby oysters from last season's crop has been feeding all summer and reaching market size. They've been working out at the gym, pumping iron, and drinking algae-rich shakes. If you're not convinced yet, here are our top 10 reasons for eating more oysters this month:

1. Vibrio season is nearing an end!

Yah, we did a little happy dance.

2. Oysters are getting fat and plump.

And may be too big for you to handle.

3. And oh, the varieties finally in production.


That's right, you'll be a kid in a candy store... when you call early obviously.


4. All the oyster events are in full swing.

Here's just a few in September:


5. Oyster festivals = BEER GARDENS = an excuse to drink


Get those oyster shooters, the crisp white wine, and beer hats ready!

6. You'll start seeing more of the good stuff at $1 Oyster Happy Hours.


No longer are the days of just Blue Points and Malpeques during $1 Happy Hour.

7. Increase your sexual stamina while the kids are finally back in school.


Let's be honest, those little boogers can get in the way sometimes.

8. You'll get mad oyster respect because you know when they're best.


Cheers to you to my friend.

9. Even if you believe in the "R" rule, you no longer have an excuse in September.



10. And most importantly, because you love your local oystermen and appreciate their hard work over the last 18 to 36 months!


Group hug... we at Pangea Shellfish love our oystermen, too.

If you have more reasons why everyone should be eating oysters right now, leave them in the comments below! Let the fall and winter season begin! We can't wait to have oyster stuffing for Thanksgiving again.


Connecticut 2014 Vibrio Control Plan Updated

At Pangea, Blue Point Oysters are a staple, but lately, they have been so hard to come by. When we asked our Blue Point harvesters why, many of them pointed to the new Connecticut 2014 Virbio parahaemolyticus Control Plan. Connecticut has enacted two versions of the control plan: one set of regulations for Darien, Norwalk, and Westport; and one set of regulations for all other CT areas.

Strangely, I couldn't find the updated control plan posted on the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Aquaculture site. So, I reached out to them and have posted it here for everybody's information:

So what's the difference?

All oysters harvested between June 1 and August 31 inclusive from the waters of Darien, Norwalk or Westport shall be immediately placed into an on-vessel ice slurry (or method Approved by the DA/BA) for rapid cooling to 50°F internal temperature.
— Connecticut 2014 VPCP

The main difference is the time required to cool the oysters to <50º F from time of harvest. In DNW regulations, harvesters are expected to rapid cool their oysters within one hour versus 5 hours in all other areas. For DNW harvesters, that means once the oysters are out of the water, they need to cull, clean, bag, AND rapid cool the oysters down to <50º F all within 60 minutes. For smaller boats that do not have slurries or processing equipment, this can be extremely difficult to do for a boat load of oysters.

Since we get most of our Blue Points from Norwalk and Westport waters, supply has been constrained because harvesters do not have the time (and/or boat) capacity to harvest substantial amounts of oysters. Instead, many harvesters are turning to clams because it's a better use of their time.

If these regulations do what they are intended to do, which is to prevent vibrio outbreaks, then it might be hard to argue any "undue hardships." Regulators are creating these plans based on the best information available, but more concrete data is needed. To the industry, some of these regulations seem a bit arbitrary. For example, why one hour and not two? These are questions many of us have on our minds, but only time will tell what will work and whether regulations will evolve as we test and learn.

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!