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.

Our 2019 U.S. Shellfish Industry Outlook

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Over the last ten years, we have seen the oyster market explode. We saw the rise of farmed oysters, the rapid openings of raw bars, and the expansion of the cocktail-size oyster market. The shellfish industry continues to surprise us with innovation and newcomers. But as it grows, it is also drawing more attention from the public sphere. As we look forward into 2019, here are the industry issues and trends we are thinking about and how they may affect the shellfish market.

Supply Trends

Climate Change

At the most recent 2019 Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition, climate change was the hot topic. The ramifications of climate change for the shellfish industry are far-reaching. Ocean acidification and warming waters are affecting shellfish health and development. Shellfish are becoming more susceptible to disease and less resistant to invasive species. More frequent and extreme weather systems also increase the risk of losses. Stormwater runoff carrying excess nitrogen is causing more algal blooms harmful to shellfish.

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

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2019 IMPLICATIONS

Climate change is the new reality, and it will likely continue this year and into the near future. The consequences of climate change will definitely affect supply. Winter storms, wind, and other weather systems will limit farm access and production. There could be more frequent shellfish area closures due to heavy rain or algal blooms. Vibrio bacteria also thrives in warmer waters, which increases the risk of illnesses and related closures.

The warmer temperatures will likely induce shellfish to spawn sooner and potentially longer.  This will affect their quality during the warmer months. The soft shell clam fishery continues to struggle with climate change, and its decline will limit supply. Connecticut, a large producer of hard shell clams, is seeing a decline in wild set seed. This will likely put future pressure on hard shell supply as well.

Regulations affecting catch and harvest

“They have no idea about the impact on the habitat and the fishery… And they’ve made a regulation that’s going to affect people dramatically in a negative way.”

- Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang

Public agencies and regulators are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, these regulations can hurt the industry. This past December, the New England Fisheries Management Council closed an area in Nantucket Shoals to protect aquatic habitat. The area, however, was also vital to the surf clam industry. The closure may cause surf clam harvest and production to drop by 50%. Surf clam is a New England staple — it’s the main ingredient in New England clam chowder.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Market prices on wild shellfish will likely increase with supply constraints. Product costs on surf clams have already gone up since the closure. These costs inevitably get passed along the supply chain to the consumer. Local, state, and federal regulations affect the industry's ability to produce and sell. If new rules apply in 2019, they may pose unforeseen supply challenges.

Oyster farmers are more prepared

Despite all the doom and gloom around climate change and regulations, oyster producers are readier than ever. Growers have had to deal with the effects of climate change and red tape for more than a few years now. Oyster hatcheries now breed seed to adapt to ocean acidification. Industry changes have forced growers to find smarter approaches, and they’re now more prepared for the unexpected.

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

2019 IMPLICATIONS

If Mother Nature is kind, farmed supply will be relatively steady throughout the year. It's hard to predict unforeseen forces like new regulations or industry shifts. So if all stays the same, weather aside, we expect oysters to be fairly available moving through 2019.

Market Trends

Credit: Sara Norris

Credit: Sara Norris

Interests in something new

The raw bar market is starting to mature. Restaurants and diners are now looking to branch out of local varieties. Demand for Pacific oysters is growing on the East Coast. Interest in Northeast oysters is growing in Gulf regions. The Midwest is seeing a lift in shellfish growth from both coasts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Demand for local seafood will remain strong, but this increasing interest for different and new will help farms reach markets outside their local regions. Smaller producers will have more opportunities to find their niche market. More restaurants are also adding oysters to their menus, so businesses will need to stay creative to entice their customers with their shellfish offerings.

Interests from abroad

Despite growing domestic demand, the international appetite for American shellfish is even greater. Asia and Europe are heavy seafood consumers. Domestic producers can command a higher price in these export markets. As of late, politics have definitely affected seafood exports going to China. The West Coast shellfish industry is feeling its effects. On the European front, the FDA is working with the EU to lift an import ban on American oysters.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The global political climate has been difficult to predict. If trade tariffs stay, shellfish exports, especially to China, will continue to struggle. As a result, Pacific shellfish availability could improve in the domestic market. If the FDA and the EU are able to lift the American oyster ban, this will be great news for producers. Peak shellfish consumption in the EU occurs during the winter when consumption is slow in the US.

More aquaculture, more public visibility

The growth of the shellfish industry has definitely not gone unnoticed. The oyster farm boom has drawn attention in many local communities concerned with their water access and waterfront sight lines. These NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) issues are miring the industry in lengthy and/or costly legal battles. These issues are leading to delays in permitting and sometimes, forcing farms to close up shop.

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More consumers enjoying shellfish also means increased risk of shellfish-related foodborne illnesses. These illnesses receive more media attention, which can become greater public concern. Media outlets sometimes paint the industry as careless despite the industry’s preventative efforts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The good news, however, is that many in the public, especially younger generations, have good faith in the industry. They understand that farmed shellfish and aquaculture are sustainable choices. Misinformation remains, but consumers are getting smarter by engaging with producers and suppliers. They are educating themselves and asking questions about their food sources.

This good faith has helped the industry weather difficult situations. There have been times past when the public has come to the industry’s defense. Our industry will continue to invest in public education and marketing with hope to continue this momentum of public support.

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Overall, we expect 2019 to be a pretty steady year. But then again, that can all change in a second based on the whims of Mother Nature. It’s part of our jobs to deal with the unexpected, so we’ll figure it out as an industry. We have seen lots of change over the years, so this year may be no different. Keeps us on our toes. In to 2019 we go.

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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

The (un)Natural History of the Eastern Oyster

The (un)Natural History of the Eastern Oyster

All along the East Coast of the United States, for perhaps as long as man has survived here, there has been a special bond between Homo sapiens and the Eastern Oyster, or Crassostrea virginica. We’ve gorged ourselves on them, savored them, obliterated them, and made great steps toward resurrecting them. However, in order to have a chance at truly saving this species and, in effect, our estuaries and shorelines, it is important to understand the complicated history of our relationship.

Read More

Imidacloprid: a solution or an anathema?

A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances used to destroy, suppress or alter the life cycle of any pest. A pesticide can be a naturally derived or synthetically produced substance.

In this modern age, the thought of food pesticides turns many consumers off. Pesticides have been used since Sumerian agriculture 4500 years ago, but its effects on people have only been documented for the last fifty to sixty years. The research and findings have generated enough awareness and disgust to propel the organic movement, a return to what's natural, though many consumers are unaware that organic farms still use pesticides. The difference is, the pesticides are certified organic.

When it comes to oyster aquaculture, consumers mostly regard the farming practice to be positive and sustainable because farmed oysters live and grow in their natural habitat and do a lot of good for the environment. Recently, however, news of a pesticide permit for Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor in Washington, the nation’s largest shellfish producing bay, has sparked outrage as the public learns of pesticide use in shellfish aquaculture for the first time.

The backlash caused the state to withdraw the pesticide permit approved last April, disappointing many Washington shellfish growers who were depending on it. So what’s going on? Why are Washington shellfish farms using pesticides?

A little background

Since at least the 1940s, the Pacific has been plagued with two native species of inedible burrowing shrimp. The shrimp feed by digging in the sediment, and in doing so, soften the sand and disrupt the structural integrity of the sediment causing shellfish to sink and suffocate. Eelgrass habitats that support other marine organisms are also affected because the sediment is too soft for roots. Once the shrimp take over, many of the tidal beds become useless as the shrimp get as dense as 400 shrimp per square meter.

Photo from Damian Mulinix | The Daily Astorian

Photo from Damian Mulinix | The Daily Astorian

The state recognized the damage caused by the shrimp and began testing various control methods. Carbaryl or Sevin, an insecticide, was approved in 1963 and was used until it was phased out in 2013 after carcinogenic effects were discovered. As water temperatures have warmed, the shrimp population has increased and without a way to control them, many commercial shellfishermen are watching the shrimp destroy their once productive beds that now look like moon craters.

The permit approved last April was for the use of imidacloprid, the most widely used insecticide in the world, even found in flea collars for pets. The dosage approved was 1/16th the dosage of carbaryl per acre, a highly diluted amount. Recent research, however, suggests imidacloprid may be responsible for the collapse of honey bees, and several countries have already restricted the use of such neurotoxins.

Photo From Steve Ringman | The Seattle Times

Photo From Steve Ringman | The Seattle Times

So should imidacloprid be permitted?

Arguments FOR imidacloprid

  • Imidacloprid is far safer than carbaryl and would be used in a smaller and highly diluted dosage applied by hand.
  • It would never be sprayed on oysters, only on the sediment before oysters are even seeded there months later.
  • It would prevent a worse case scenario of a 70-80% reduction of shellfish production – the bay currently yields about $35 million in product and is the economic backbone of Pacific County, employing many of its residents.
  • The insecticide does not kill the shrimp, but paralyzes it.
  • Burrowing shrimp is an invasive species destroying other parts of the ecosystem like eelgrass habitats and the estuaries.
  • Imidacloprid would only be sprayed in non-eelgrass areas with dense shrimp populations.
  • Many generational growers will lose their farms and not even be able to sell them because the flats are unproductive.
  • Imidacloprid is highly water soluble and has very low toxicity to fish even on an acute basis.
  • Bees do not frequent shellfish beds.

Arguments AGAINST imidacloprid

  • The burrowing shrimp are native species to Washington. The cultured gigas oyster originally from Japan is the invasive one.
  • There would be uncertain consequences to the aquatic ecosystem.
  • Because imidacloprid is highly water soluble, it shouldn’t be applied directly to water.
  • Although the imidacloprid paralyzes the shrimp, the shrimp eventually suffocate and die.
  • Imidacloprid is highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates, moderately toxic to small birds, and may affect other subsurface organisms.
  • If there is no light, imidacloprid will break down slowly in water in which the half-life of imidacloprid is about 1 year.
  • NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oppose the use of imidacloprid on ocean environments.
  • Pesticides can drift into neighboring farms of growers who refuse to use pesticides.
  • The use of pesticides make oysters seem less “natural” or “quasi-wild.”
  • We are changing the land and sea to better our human production needs.
  • If aerial application is allowed, there might be potential spray drift from the helicopter.
  • Potential confusion in public access areas treated by imidacloprid.

We summarized the main arguments from both sides above. Shellfish growers in Willapa Bay are just as torn as some growers are for and others are not.
 

What do you think?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
 


Sources

Fact sheet for Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit No. WA0039781; October 24, 2014

Willapa Desert: Key oyster bed abandoned as inedible shrimp take over; The Daily Astorian: http://www.dailyastorian.com/Local_News/20160805/willapa-desert-key-oyster-bed-abandoned-as-inedible-shrimp-take-over

Get out of the way and let oyster growers survive; The Chinook Observer: http://www.chinookobserver.com/co/editorials/20160809/get-out-of-the-way-and-let-oyster-growers-survive

Washington State Turns to Neurotoxins to Save Its Oysters; Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-04-24/washington-state-turns-to-neurotoxins-to-save-its-oysters

Willapa Bay Oyster Farmers Ask State Again for Permission To Use Neurotoxin; KPLU: http://www.kplu.org/post/willapa-bay-oyster-farmers-ask-state-again-permission-use-neurotoxin

Can oyster farms make Puget Sound a little more wild?; Crosscut.com: http://crosscut.com/2016/06/can-oyster-farms-make-puget-sound-a-little-more-wild/

U.S. consumers across the country devour record amount of organic in 2014; Organic Trade Association: http://ota.com/news/press-releases/18061

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.

 
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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!

 

Where are the Nantucket and Vineyard bay scallops?

For many Northeast seafood lovers, November is one of the best times of year because it’s the start of bay scallop season! Bay scallops are the jewels of the sea – super sweet and buttery, especially when they are freshly shucked and eaten raw. Sea candy, we like to call them.

But if you’ve been looking forward to the season like us, you’ve probably noticed that it has been disappointing, especially bay scallops from Massachusetts. Prices are high and retail markets are selling previously frozen to keep up with demand. What’s driving this season’s limited production? And is there a way to anticipate supply for next fall?

For basic info about bay scallops, read The Skinny on Bay Scallops here.

Bay scallop seed affected by last winter

Last winter was one for the books. Massachusetts received a record amount of snow and cold weather. This had significant repercussions for many shellfish farms and fisheries, bay scallops included. It takes two years for bay scallops to reach adulthood before they can be harvested. Unfortunately, the harsh winter conditions wiped out much of the juvenile scallops that would have been adults and ready for harvest this past fall.

Town regulations and area closures

Bay scallop fisheries are typically open from November 1 to March 31 of each year to protect the scallops and give them time to repopulate in the summer. Since bay scallops have a two-year life span, it’s hard to overfish them as long as fishermen are harvesting adult scallops. But since there aren’t many adults in the water as noted above, shellfish constables and town regulators have decided to close areas to protect the seed. On Martha’s Vineyard, these closures have upset commercial fishermen who rely on scalloping for a living, but regulators argue that harvesting, typically by dredging, disturbs the brood stock and it’s hard to regulate fishing of under-sized scallops.

The acrimony comes during a poor scalloping season... It is illegal to take seed scallops... even though many are almost as large as adult scallops. Mr. Grunden invoked his authority under state law to close Sengekontacket Pond to scalloping before the season officially opened... Yields in other Oak Bluffs waters have been marginal, and town officials are considering the closure of other usually abundant waters.
— Steve Myrick for the Vineyard Gazette

Poor water quality and eelgrass loss impacting scallop growth and recovery

Massachusetts scallop fisheries have seen a widespread decline since the mid 1980s. Many scientists point to poor water quality as the primary culprit. Water pollution from increased tourism, coastal housing developments, and fertilizer runoff adds more nitrogen to the water, which accelerates algae growth. As algae density increases, water clarity decreases. This affects the amount of sunlight that can penetrate the water to reach the eelgrass meadows, the bay scallop’s habitat.

Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between eelgrass density and scallop survival. Scallops like to attach to the upper eelgrass canopies to stay away from their benthic predators, and they have access to more particulate food collected by the eelgrass blades. As eelgrass further decline on the Vineyard and Nantucket, bay scallops will continue to struggle due to habitat loss.

On Nantucket, the harbor used to be one of the main scallop fisheries on the island. Unfortunately, the geography of the harbor is not very conducive to tidal change. This exasperates the water quality issue and provides less food for the scallops to feed. Boat traffic and mooring field maintenance also disturbs the seed and their habitat. Now, much of the Nantucket bay scallop volume has been coming from the west end of the island instead of the harbor.

Less product around, less fishermen around

With less adult scallops around to fish, fishermen are looking for other sources of income instead. According to Jeff from Salty Balls, there are typically lots of fishermen up until Christmas. At the start of the season, there were around a hundred boats. But after seeing disappointing catches over the first few weeks, fishermen have moved on to find jobs on the island or fish for something else. If there's no one fishing, it doesn't really matter whether there are any adult scallops still in the water.

What will supply look like moving forward?

As we enter the coldest months of winter 2016 (it was -6º F windchill two days ago...), bay scallops will become more and more limited than they already are. Fishermen cannot or are not allowed to fish if there is bad weather, strong winds, or cold temperatures. When the air temperature is 28º F or below, the scallops will freeze once out of the water. Expect product to be extremely tight or non-existent until the season closes.

And as for the next season in November 2016... Well, we wish we had better news to tell you, but there's really no way of knowing. "There may be a good amount of seed in the water [ready] for next fall, but it's hard to tell what will happen after winter. There won't be any supply indication until the [fishermen] start poking around in November," says Jeff from the Net Result Fish Market.

So what can you do if you're desperate for bay scallops? One option is to look for bay scallops from other regions like Long Island and Nova Scotia or try to source them previously frozen. Of course, fresh is always best, but frozen bay scallops thawed correctly can work well too. Look to change up your menu with items like Maine dayboat sea scallops that are in season right now through April. They're definitely not bay scallops, but they're equally beautiful and tasty!


Special thanks to Jeff from Salty Balls and Jeff from Net Result Fish Market for contributing to the research of this piece. Photos from nantucketcommunity.org.

 

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?

MARKET TRENDS

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.
 

2016 IMPLICATIONS

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

PHOTO BY RUSH JAGOE FOR CNN.COM

PHOTO BY RUSH JAGOE FOR CNN.COM

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.

2016 IMPLICATIONS

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.

SUPPLY TRENDS

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

2016 IMPLICATIONS

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.

2016 IMPLICATIONS

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!
 

Why were steamer clams so expensive this summer?

Maine steamers are a New England staple here at Pangea, and if you've been eating or buying steamers this summer, you've probably noticed the price tag. We've heard whistles and utter shock after telling customers the market price of the day, and as of July, steamer pricing hit an all-time high, breaking the record set last year and the year before that. Steamer prices continue to rise each year, and historically (as you will see below), once they go up, they never seem to go back down. So what's driving the price on steamers? And what's going to happen next season?

Changes In the Steamer Market

The steamer market is a textbook example of Economics 101 -- prices go up because demand outpaces supply, and this season, it was no different. However, a number of key market changes put more pressure on supply than usual, which drove prices abnormally higher than expected.

Back in the day, the diggers didn’t know what you could get for a bushel a few towns over unless they drove there to find out, but now with technology, a digger can easily check from miles away and create some competition.
Photo from Bangor Daily News

Photo from Bangor Daily News

The Age of Information and Competitive Prices

Before the days of the internet and smart phones, wholesale buyers in Maine would physically display what they would pay for a bushel of steamers. Diggers would then try to find the local buyer with the highest price. If buyers from a few towns over paid better, it was hard for diggers to know unless they traveled there, but there was always the risk of wasting time and gas. These days, technology has made information exchange easy and fast. Diggers can quickly find out prices in neighboring towns, which gives them the power to choose who they supply. Local wholesalers need to be competitive to keep diggers coming, but offering these higher prices means passing the cost on through the supply chain, and ultimately to the consumer.

More Players, More Demand

The farm-to-table movement has become very popular with restaurants, but many grocery chains are also getting on board, especially with sourcing local seafood. This applies to the steamer market, too. In Maine, steamer wholesalers are not only competing with each other, but also grocery chains that have now set up buying stations to buy directly from diggers. Since the grocery chains are selling direct-to-consumer, they have more room to offer diggers better prices. Steamer production has been fairly normal, even up, in the Downeast region for the past few years, but as more buyers and bigger players enter the market increasing demand, supply just cannot keep up.

A supermarket circular for the week of August 30 to September 5, 2015

A supermarket circular for the week of August 30 to September 5, 2015

Demand Is Greatest When Supply Is Toughest

It's hard to dissociate seafood from summer. It's the season when people go on vacation or go to the beach to enjoy local seafood fare. Demand typically peaks Mid-July through August. Kids are out of summer school and families are squeezing in last-minute vacations. Unfortunately, summer is the most difficult time for shellfish. Like oysters, steamers also spawn during the warmer months. The energy expended in spawning makes the steamers weak. Yet, there are also other reasons why Maine supply is strapped during those months:

  • Areas have been dug out or closed. Towards the end of summer, many steamer beds are empty because they have already been picked through earlier in the season. Other beds may have been subject to closures in efforts to conserve dwindling clam populations.
     
  • Diggers have other jobs. Many Maine diggers are also lobstermen, so in the summer months when the weather conditions are better and the demand for lobsters is high, some diggers prefer lobstering over clamming. August is also the harvest season for wild Maine blueberries, so some diggers choose to work on blueberry farms instead. One of our suppliers estimates approximately 30% of diggers take on other jobs during the peak season.
     
  • Clams are steadily declining, especially in Midcoast Maine. In 1977, Maine landed 40 million pounds of steamers state-wide. In 2014, it was 10 million pounds. Some attribute this decline to the invasion of green crabs that feed on clam spat. Others point to high acidity in the mudflats caused by ocean acidification, which hinders clam growth. The Casco Bay and Harpswell area have been heavily affected, which "used to support more than 50 full-time harvesters," but now only "a handful of 10 to 15" part-timers.
 
Rakers earn piece rate wages, and the going rate is $2.25-$3.50 per box. A box of blueberries contains 23 pounds of fruit, and according to Rabinowitz, workers may earn $200 per day or more.
— Bangor Daily News

How will prices change going forward?

Typically, steamer prices will drop throughout the fall barring any bad weather and holiday demand spikes. We plotted historical prices over the last three years below.

maine steamer pricing trend

As you can tell, prices are pretty volatile, but fluctuations aside, one thing is clear -- steamer prices continue to peak every summer. So, if history is any indication, we can expect to see a new record price for next year's July 4th and Labor Day holidays, again.

So when is the best time to buy steamers?

"In the spring," our suppliers explain. "The clams are in good shape before they begin to spawn, and it's cheaper because there's less demand." So if you love clams, especially year-round, be a savvy buyer and get them while they're at their best AND at the best price!

Huge thanks to our Maine steamer suppliers for contributing to the research of this piece.