It’s in August, when water temperatures are in the 80s and the sun shines on Cape Cod’s waters, that it’s just possible to form a romantic idea about oyster farming. Even in high summer, though, It’s unlikely that such an idea will withstand a few days out on the farm, pounding stakes into the sand, hauling bags of seed, and shaking trays of oysters.
Any surviving romance dies in December. The water is 40 degrees. The air is 30. The wind howls out of the north. You wonder who ever did this before neoprene.
At this time of the year, the big job is getting oysters out of the water and into a cooler of some kind. Although oysters can survive winter weather – as evidenced by the robust populations that, left unmolested, grow wild – oyster equipment doesn’t do so well. The enemy isn’t the cold; it’s the ice.
When ice forms in Barnstable Harbor, it destroys anything in its path. A line of trays left out over the winter can be a heap of wire rubble in the spring.
Or not. If you’re lucky, and the ice never comes to the right place at the right time, your equipment, and the oysters in it, could survive intact. It’s a gamble.
“Our oysters” consist of about 80 or 90 thousand we raised under the tutelage of Les Hemmila, of Barnstable Seafarms. We got them in June, when they were each the size of a head of a pin. All 100+ thousand of them (we lost a couple bags, improperly attached to their apparatus, along the way) fit in a package the size of a standard-issue brick. Now, six months later, most of them are between one and two inches long, and they weigh, in total, about 750 pounds.
As of this past Tuesday, the oysters were in 140 stiff mesh bags, each four feet by a foot and a half. The bags were out in the harbor, suspended off the ground on a system of ropes.
The ropes are sets of two 100-foot lengths, anchored at each end and suspended at fifteen-foot intervals by PVC pipes sticking out of the sand. The bags are zip-tied to one of the ropes, and held by a clip that looks like a giant safety pin on the other.
To bring the bags in, we have to cut the two zip ties, unclip the clip, and put the bag in the boat.
It sounds so easy, writing it, but it wasn’t so easy, doing it. It’s the details that get you. Take the simple act of cutting two zip ties. Simple, right? But then make them very tightly zipped around mesh you absolutely, positively, don’t want to cut into while you’re removing the zip tie. Then put them about eight inches off the ground, so you either have to kneel or bend at the waist – neither motion is comfortably sustainable over 140 bags. Then require that, once the ties are cut, you have to pick them up out of water or wet sand so you don’t leave them out in the harbor. All this, of course, you must do while wearing unwieldy gloves, and enough layers of clothing to make moving at all a non-trivial undertaking.
The zip ties are hardest, but the clips are no cakewalk either. They’re stiff, and you have to unclip them without catching your unwieldy gloves in the mechanism. Then you have to re-clip them with the same concern.
Kevin and I managed to get a system down that worked pretty well. He cut the ties with a hook that he inserted under the tie and twisted until the thing broke. I did the clips, and then went down the lines and picked up the zip ties.
Once the bags were free, we had to get them in the boat. To do this, you want to bring the boat as close to the bags as possible, which is a delicate dance with time and tide. Because, most days, our oysters are high and dry at low tide, we have to bring the boat in while there’s still enough water to float it, fill it with oysters while the water’s out, and then bring it in when the tide floods again.
We were using Les’s boat, which is a big brother to ours and holds much more. We took half the crop in on Tuesday and the other half yesterday. From the mesh bags, they went into about 70 onion bags which we stacked on a pallet. The pallet then gets wrapped in burlap and stored in a giant industrial refrigerator.
There, the oysters will go dormant, which is pretty much what they’d do if we left them out in the water. Oysters glom up all the plankton they can in the fall months in order to lay in stores of glycogen to see them through the winter. When it’s very cold, they don’t feed, and get by on their internal supplies.
Our oysters will be slowly using up their glycogen between now and April, which is when we’ll unwrap them in the hopes of finding them thin but healthy. Then they go back in the water to fatten and grow.
When they were pinhead-size, it was hard to think of them as real, live, animals. They looked for all the world like quinoa. Now that they’re pushing two inches, they look like oysters, and Kevin and I find ourselves concerned for their welfare. We bagged them and stacked them as gently as we could, trying to minimize the trauma. We carefully collected any oysters that fell out of the bags, or got stuck in the seams.
Partly, of course, it’s because they’re our livelihood, and each oyster that doesn’t die or get lost is another sixty cents or so in our pocket when it reaches maturity. But it’s also because we are responsible for living beings, even if they are living beings without a face or a central nervous system. I want them to be happy and safe.
Until we sell them, to be eaten alive.