His world is our oyster

The author navigates the All In around his farm.  Photo courtesy Dave Paling

August 2021

By David Paling
For Points East

You’re tooling down the river on a perfect summer day, and something catches your eye – something that’s not natural, a formation with abnormal parallel components, with too many little buoys floating in straight lines on the surface to belong there. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a workboat appears, stopping intermittently at intervals along the strange setup. And it dawns on you, this does belong there. It’s a New England shellfish farm, one of those coastal operations that bring us the freshest and most flavorful mollusks in the world.

Life is good working on an oyster farm – some of the time. In the following pages I’ve chronicled – sometimes with tongue in cheek – the highs and lows from the Crooked River Shellfish Farm, a small aquaculture enterprise in Wareham, Mass. At the same time, I’ll give you inshore pilots a window into the anatomy of these aquaculture enterprises, and why we marine agriculturists ply our trades the way we do. Essentially, I present the diary of an ascendant oyster farmer.

January 2016: Out of nowhere an old acquaintance, Steve Patterson, knocked on my door with an interesting proposal. He wanted to start an oyster farm here, in Wareham, but couldn’t do so because he wasn’t a resident. He wanted to partner with me, and I was bored so I said yes. Naivete was also a contributing factor.

Steve was in the process of separating from a job he’d held at Roger Williams University, in Bristol, R.I., for the past several years. There, he was a field manager, working as part of a team trying to restore the wild oyster population (decimated by disease) in the state of Rhode Island. He knew I lived in Wareham, and he sought me out to realize a lifelong dream.

I had grown up in this coastal town and it had provided me with a seafaring background. I was genetically predisposed to agree. In a snap, I said I was all in. We shook hands, agreeing to a marriage before any courtship.

January-December 2016: To get underway required a myriad of approvals. The ocean of red tape ranged from the local Board of Selectmen to the Division of Marine Fisheries to the Army Corps of Engineers et al. This onerous process took about a year.

January-March 2017: It was time to decide on a grow system. Steve explained the floating-culture method, and cost-effectiveness led us down this path. Working from my garage, we bought sheets of mesh and shaped bags with them using a jig and hog rings, made of sturdy metal, allowing them to be bent while maintaining ring integrity.

Three different mesh sizes would be employed because, as the oysters grew, they would be sorted and placed into larger mesh bags according to growth rates. Floats were secured to each side of the bags, and soon we had piles of these stacked outside. As the clutter grew, my neighbors looked on suspiciously.

Our location was near the Crooked River, in Wareham, and, thus, the name Crooked River Shellfish Farm was born. We hoped to grow both oysters and quahogs here with emphasis on Crassostrea virginica, the common Atlantic oyster. We ordered 60,000 of them from a state-approved hatchery on Cape Cod. They’d be picked up fingernail-size, transported inside coolers, distributed into our bags by volume and then launched.

At home, I giddily typed data into a calculator. A five-millimeter size oyster cost a nickel, so it would take $3,000 to get our enterprise underway. The going rate for oysters sold to wholesalers was 60 cents each. We could earn 12 times our money (before expenses) once the oysters reached the three-inch legal length required for sales. I fantasized over the illusion of fabulous wealth.

Steve purchased a used, 16-foot Carolina Skiff and parked it in my yard. This seatless, flat-bottomed working vessel would allow us to transport lots of oysters. We fittingly dubbed the boat All In. Our excitement level grew, but so did the neighbors’ level of wariness. Each addition to the farming arsenal represented a decrease in property values. Our floating bags would be held in place via a series of helical anchors that looked like big corkscrews that would be turned into the substrate.

Anxious to get going, we headed out in March. Even at low tide, this required a bit of underwater work, and the task marked the birth of the realization that the idea of easy money wasn’t going to hold water. Wearing a wet suit and mask, I twisted the anchors down using a crowbar for leverage. There were 12 total to do, each one taking about half-hour. The water temperature was 40 degrees, and I was one unhappy oyster farmer. My wife, Sue, and I purchased insulated waders.

April-June 2017: The oysters were ready in April. Steve inspected our product and thought we’d be OK using medium-sized mesh bags. This would save time later as it eliminated the step of relaying oysters from small to medium mesh sized bags. We scooped the spat and poured them into bags by volume. We secured each bag by ropes and clips into our system. At the end of the day, some 60,000 bivalves resided happily in their containers, syphoning meals of phytoplankton. Our oysters would grow like Chia Pets, Steve thought.

The strategy backfired. We walked among our organized lines and noticed that lots of oysters had escaped. The bottom was littered with newly purchased seed. For the record, Steve and I were college grads.

My wife, a native New Yorker, took to the Massachusetts coastline with a vengeance. She enjoyed the pleasures of reaping marine bounty and was my frequent companion digging clams and dredging for scallops. She shared my enthusiasm about becoming an oyster farmer, and the day after this mishap she appeared on site with a butterfly net to scoop up the AWOL seed. This approach worked, but the disappointing conclusion was that our effort to save time lost time.

We settled into a routine that would assist our shellfish grow rates, a process we expected to take 18 months minimum. When bio-fouling – a suffocating combination of barnacle, mussel, sea squirts and seaweed – occurred, we’d hand-scrub this slop from the bags to keep sustaining water flowing freely. We also shook each bag as this agitation would promote the development of deep-cupped oysters. “No one wants oysters shaped like potato chips,” Steve remarked.

Deep cups were part of oyster allure. These cups allowed the liquid inside the shells to be retained when served raw, a critical part of the merroir that gives the oysters their distinct flavor, a sense of place. So, we shook them like human jackhammers, and, while the oysters may have enjoyed this, my aging shoulder joints, already compromised with replacement parts, hurt like hell. I also noticed that Sue spent a lot of time conversing with the oysters, addressing them like she did potted plants at home. “Good morning my little darlings,” she’d say. “Are we getting enough to eat?”

We flipped the bags over periodically so sunlight would kill bio-foul, saving us the tedium of hand-scrubbing. “Flip and flush,” Steve described the ongoing process. Flipping the bags also gave oysters on the bottom, weighed down by other oysters, to have turns on top. It was much easier to eat when you weren’t being sat on.

We saw growth in a matter of weeks. In a short time, we’d need to deploy more bags so overcrowding wouldn’t strangle oysters. While we expected a natural mortality rate, we certainly didn’t want any unnecessary deaths. More oysters meant more profit, so we kept active moving our crop around and separating them by size so that big oysters wouldn’t out-eat their smaller cousins.

We bought 50,000 more oysters and deployed them successfully onto the farm. Trying to work efficiently, I’d climb over long lines attached to the anchors rather than walk around them. Barnacles on these lines tore open my $100 waders and opened a gash on my leg. That day was the first of many that saw me bleed.

July-September 2017: In the beginning, we worked at low tide, the most convenient time to access oysters. Oysters resided in depths ranging from one to four feet. I had built a plywood worktable that could be set up aboard our boat, allowing us to work at any depth at any time. But it was not easy hauling heavy bags in and out.

These claustrophobic working conditions drove Steve to make a table that stood on the sea floor and was mobile, allowing us to toil while in the water. Eventually, our evolution saw us hauling bags in so that we could work from the beach. The largest oyster farm in Wareham had a floating platform on which sat the mechanized ability to cull oysters. We fantasized about owning such an expensive device, but for now we were left to labor in the Stone Age.

We bought 67,0000 more oysters, bringing our total to over 180,000. Part of this purchase included “triploids,” laboratory designed oysters with three sets of chromosomes. Triploids were, by intent, infertile. Steve explained: “Oysters that don’t concentrate on sexual matters concentrate on feeding more and growing faster.” The enormity of presiding over this many oysters crept into my nighttime dreams.

October 2017: We tasted our oysters raw for the very first time. Late one day, Sue and I inexpertly shucked a few fresh and sharp-edged oysters. powerful adductor muscles that enabled the oysters to close. Once the wrestling match and bleeding stopped, however, we were rewarded with briny bursts of taste. Sue summarized the culinary moment: “Yummy.”

When enough oysters hit three-inch lengths, we sold our first 600 to a local wholesaler. The farm had turned an important corner. To date, our outlay – the boat, licenses, fees, fuel, gear, oyster seed, and the like – had Steve and I each nearly $20,000 down. This sale got us on the road toward recovering these startup costs.

We were cognizant of food-safety regulations in the course of selling our oysters, but, on inaugural sales day, we somehow forgot to tag bags before landing. Coincidentally, an official from the harbormaster’s office was at the marina when we got in. Aware of our efforts as new farmers, he failed to notice something was missing. Instead, he took photos of the proud farmers, with their untagged bags, for the town website.

Why our oysters grew so fast is a mystery. Steve thought our locale yielded the proper salinity, the water phytoplankton-rich. I thought it was due to a combination of dumb luck and diligence. Sue, operating within her own orbit, reminded us that the oysters thrived because she conversed with them.

December 2017: We’d spent the last few weeks winterizing. The floats were removed, bags filled three-quarters full of oysters, which were strapped to sections of aluminum ladder Steve had retrieved from town dumps. The ladders will provide three to four feet of flow beneath our oysters when dormant for the winter. We bring messy bags home for power washing.

We dragged the sections of ladder offshore to three feet of depth at low tide. This will prevent heavy ice from crushing our product. It was cold and critically necessary to keep our hands dry, but manageable with enough layers of clothing.

We take the All in out for the winter and make arrangements for a $1,600 motor repair. My latest waders have ripped apart, so I’ll need another pair. We never got around to buying any quahogs.

January-March 2018: We’ve established our small business as an L.L.C. Dept. of Agriculture paperwork yielded free insurance. Barnacles were scraped from the hull of the All in so we could paint her. We’ll buy 200,000 oysters this year to expand the output of the farm.

April 2018: We haul ladders into shore and re-establish our floating bag system. Icing had been severe, and we found a number of crushed oysters. There are other risks for aquaculturists: predators include starfish, crabs, oyster drills, snails and humans. Oysters can become diseased. The weather can be fickle and fateful.

We also have suffered Crepidula hell. We notice our oysters have taken on a genus of sea snail and, our wholesaler is curt with his expectations: “No one wants oysters with that **** all over them,” he notes. So now we must sun dry and scrape the clusters of Crepidula growing on our stuff. The hard-working farmers find a way to work harder.

Steve and I found that working in such close proximity did not always leave us happy as clams. He had habits that drove me nuts, and the feeling was mutual about mine. We tried working in shifts – he in the morning and I in the afternoon or vice-versa. We found that we worked very well together, separately.

May 2018: Another colossal blunder takes place. Sue, my daughter Carly and I were thrown from the boat when I let go of the steering wheel (see “A Very Close Call,” May 2021).

June-November 2018: We worked five days on average, five or six hours per day. We culled, scraped, counted (oysters are sold in 100-count bags), bagged and tagged, iced and delivered 1,000 oysters minimum each week. Sometimes the ante was doubled or tripled. The work was repetitious and made me sore.

December 2018: We closed out another season and were happy to see we’d sold 65,000 pieces. Steve was getting close to recovering his start-up costs, and so was I, but I must buy new waders. There was no time for quahogs.

January-June 2019: An area bank was giving $10,000 to a small business via a contest. To enter the competition, we produced a short video that featured us old salts. We didn’t win, but we got 1,000 votes, and the work didn’t cause any bleeding.

In the spring Steve attempted to advance us from the Stone Age to the Bronze one with a pontoon boat. Meant to be a workstation, its surface would accommodate a homemade, hand-operated tumbler intended to spur the development of cups while culling.

July-October 2019: We brought a dozen oysters home to try grilling them. We placed them over medium heat and they popped open in about five minutes. Voila! No shucking. We applied a tarragon butter, and the results were four-star.

November-December 2019: There is no getting around the fact that aquaculture is physical. It occurs to me that it’s a younger man’s game. But the attractions of the work outweigh the degeneration I’m trying to ignore. One day in October, Sue and I motored slowly to the farm. With the summer over boat traffic was nonexistent. Stripers were working and the water roiled as they struck. Seagulls swarm overhead, and, above them, a single osprey hunted, all part of the complex food chain. When we arrived at the farm, a Diamondback terrapin turtle was sunning atop a floating bag. It plopped in the water and disappears when we closed in. We’d do the usual: haul lines in, dump oysters onto a table, find the salable ones, scrape off the damn Crepidula, and count and return the processed oysters to their stations.

The essence of being an oyster farmer means you’ve got to get your hands dirty and become intimate with the oysters. Remember to wear gloves or your hands will bleed. Do that today and again tomorrow. If you are diligent then you will succeed. And, when you see us at work while passing by in your boat, give us a wave and a holler.

David Paling is a retired high school athletic director. He is also a freelance writer of nonfiction. His work has appeared in more than 100 regional and national publications, including “On the Water,” “Runner’s World,” “Boston,” “Yankee” and “The Ring. He currently owns and operates the Crooked River Shellfish Farm, a small aquaculture enterprise in Wareham, Massachusetts.