How We Do It
Sustainability isn't enough
Mankind’s love affair with eating oysters has to do with its taste, for sure, but what makes it such a unique and religious experience for most of us is that it’s just so damn pure … a singular, unadulterated expression of nature. You pluck it from the open waters, crack it open, cut it loose and throw it back. No pomp. No artifice. No filter whatsoever. And so the last thing we’d want to do is to create a grow-out process that gets in the way of that purity.
We farm Crassostrea virginica, our region’s native oyster – it’s the only legally allowable oyster to grow on the East Coast (and we couldn’t be happier about that). In the wild, these oysters tend to grow in protective clusters (ie, oyster reefs), where the young oysters (‘spat’) cling to the side of an adult or host shell. These reefs are bastions for hundreds of species, like baby crabs and rockfish.
But harvesting these wild oysters is problematic. Firstly, you are pulling from a limited supply (one that can’t currently support its ecosystem, much less feed us). Secondly, to harvest them off the seafloor, you have to either hand tong for them (back breaking and tediously slow) or ‘dredge’ them (scraping the bottom clean and leaving nothing but mud). Lastly, and not insignificantly, you simply get a poor quality oyster, and that’s because the by-product of wild harvest is a denuded environment: oxygen poor and silty due to grass losses and malnourished due to its poor station in the water column.
So what we do is to, first, choose farm locations that best support growth (firm bottom, good flow, nutrient dense)and then over time improve those conditions. We elevate the oysters off the bottom, where the food quality and quantity is greatly improved, and place them in cages (with ‘feet’ that lift them 6 inches off the seafloor) that can easily be extracted from the water with a simple hydraulic lift. By getting them off the bottom, grasses can then grow around and under the cages, supplying oxygen and reconstituting the seafloor. And harvesting the oysters can be an extremely delicate procedure, where by-catch (yes, these cages become mini-reefs and are home to countless organisms) can flow easily out of the side of the cage as we draw it from the water.
But how is it sustainable if you’re still working with wild oysters? That’s where the story goes from good to great. Oysters in our region naturally spawn (ie, reproduce) when the water temperature hits around 75-degrees. Using a nursery system, we can trick the oysters into spawn simply by raising the water temperature. All of the subsequent larvae can be captured and ‘set’ on ‘culch’ (ground up oyster shell that serves the same purpose as the ‘host’ shell in the wild). The end result from a few dozen oysters is millions of ‘spat,’ which in the wild would have almost assuredly ended up landing and dying in the mud. And so our farms are purely additive – and that’s totally sustainable. But it gets better. Those oysters that we put in our cages will go on to reproduce, and those billions or larvae are released into the wild to further increase our public stocks. It’s about as win/win as it gets.
So for the average consumer who chooses our oyster, this means you’re not sacrificing the purity that we love about oysters. What it means is that you’re choosing to support a new way of thinking about food production, one that is healthier, more respectful, and more delicious. It seems almost contradictory, but with cultured oysters, the more you eat, the more good you’re doing for our waters, our culture, and ultimately for the preservation of our native oyster.