Oyster Farm on the Bay
By: Elise R. Hugus
It is a warm November afternoon, one of the last in the fall season. Oyster farmers Matthew V. Weeks, Steven Kirk, and Eric Matzen start up their partner’s boat, the Mr. Jake Digby, taking advantage of the calm seas to check on their gear at the bottom of Buzzards Bay.
The three men are partners in the Falmouth Shellfish Cooperative, along with Ronald J. Smolowitz, Peter D. Chase, Daniel M. Fougere, and Seth T. Adams.
Having been at it for two years, the men plan to combine their first aquaculture harvest this summer, selling their own brand of Sippewissett oysters at Coonamessett Farm in Hatchville.
Cruising out of Great Harbor, Woods Hole, and into the wide blue of the bay, the only boats on the water are fishing rigs headed back to port in New Bedford, or barges far off in the distance, heading to the Cape Cod Canal.
The oyster farmers know their aquaculture plots by the moorings dotting the water a few hundred yards off the coast. Passing by Mr. Chase’s two-acre plot off Gansett Beach, and the Woods Hole Oyster Company’s three acres outside Quissett Harbor, Mr. Kirk suddenly cuts the engine as the boat pulls into an area just past Racing Beach.
With the aid of a side-scan sonar system on board, the oyster farmers can find the exact location of their cages through GPS. Mr. Kirk swings a pulley over to the side of the boat, first hauling up a mooring, then a bucket filled with concrete that serves as a weight.
Finally, a somewhat unwieldy cage emerges from the depths, trailing seaweed and rattling with baby oysters.
The cage can weigh as much as 500 pounds when full of mature oysters, said Mr. Weeks. For that reason, he and several other men in the cooperative choose to dive down to clean the cages. Plus, diving is more fun, he said, even when the water temperature is 40 degrees.
“When we first put the cages down, there was nothing in the water,” said Mr. Weeks.
“Now, there’s all this three-dimensional habitat, like a reef system, with bait fish and marine fish hanging around and eating.”
A local food source
Unlike most farming or aquaculture operations, the farmers do not give their crop any nourishment. As filter feeders, oysters consume nutrients and phytoplankton found naturally in the water. But this makes it difficult to manage their growth, said Mr. Weeks.
One of the cooperative’s best sites for food, operated by Mr. Fougere, is located just off Black Beach, where a stream washes fresh water and nutrients from the salt marsh into Buzzards Bay. The seven-acre site shared by Mr. Kirk and Mr. Adams also benefits from an intertidal exchange between the ocean and Flume Pond.
Aquaculture operations are not common in the deep water in New England, said Mr. Weeks. The difficulty the men have in reaching their plots, not to mention the variable weather conditions and lack of consistent food supply for the oysters, make growing the Sippewissett oyster “a gamble,” he said.
“It’s like growing wheat in the Rockies,” said Mr. Weeks. “There’s lots of space, but it’s not ideal for aquaculture.”
After enjoying their first batch of oysters this Thanksgiving, the farmers are already looking forward to starting the next batch. With their first harvest expected this summer, they are talking about purchasing more one-inch oyster seed from growers in Barnstable, Maine, and Long Island.
In the future, the cooperative will grow its own seed, using upwellers, said Mr. Weeks.
By next summer, the farmers also hope to expand their operations to the town’s coastal ponds, where the warmer water and additional nutrients will help the oysters grow more quickly.
Asked if there would be a difference in taste between the Sippewissett oysters and, say, a Teaticket oyster, Mr. Weeks said that shellfish are similar to wine. Different climates and different varietal grapes make for a different taste, he said. Depending on the time of year they are harvested, oysters can also vary in size and texture.
After hauling up a cage on the long line, Mr. Kirk slides the contraption down to Mr. Matzen, who hands it off to Mr. Weeks for stacking, while Mr. Kirk’s wife, Katie Kirk, coils the line. Starfish cling to the ultraviolet-resistant plastic mesh of the cages.
“We call these ‘window shoppers,’ ” said Mr. Weeks, picking a few off the top and throwing them into a bucket.
Some starfish have even found their way inside the cages, where they can get into the finer mesh of the bags where the oysters live. Arm suckers extended and stomachs distended, they are able to break open the shells and suck out the juvenile oysters.
After pulling up all 10 cages, the crew opens up the six compartments on each one, shaking the oyster bags and clearing the seaweed and starfish from them.
Mortality has been on the rise since the summer, Mr. Kirk said, tossing a few open shells out of the bags. The likely culprits are starfish, which he has seen clinging to several oysters at a time while diving.
“The oyster’s response to starfish is to close up. They don’t feed or respirate, and so they die,” he said.
Filling up a third of a five-gallon bucket with starfish, Mr. Weeks said there is still a 19th-century law on the books in Falmouth making it illegal to throw starfish back into the water if they are found on fishing gear. He doubts it would be enforced, but the farmers are also not eager to give the starfish another meal. “
The law also says the selectmen should designate a dumping spot, but we don’t know of one,” said Mr. Weeks.
“I don’t know of any good use for starfish,” said Mr. Kirk, offering one to his dog Ozzy, who backed away at the sight.
The oysters will lie dormant all winter, conserving energy and slowly losing muscle mass, said Mr. Weeks, but once the water gets warmer, the oysters will start to feed and grow again. This spring, the farmers will sort them into bags with larger mesh, allowing them space to grow.
When mature, the bags can hold up to 200 oysters, he said. Sorting them on board—in Massachusetts, oysters can only be harvested if they are over three inches—the farmers will give the brownish shells a quick scrub, before bringing them to the tumbler on Coonamessett Farm to round off the shell.
“We’re looking forward to that ‘popcorn phase’ when they start to explode,” said Mr. Weeks.