The oyster in winter

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.

It’s a gamble some oyster farmers take, but we’re taking our cue from the two farms we work most closely with, Barnstable Seafarms and Wianno Oyster, and bringing our oysters in.

“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.

7 people are having a conversation about “The oyster in winter

  1. I appreciate your care for your oysters not only from a steward of the living things sort of sense, but also from a monetary sense. I especially love how you want them to be happy and safe until they end up in the mouths of people like me. I have to say that in a round-about sort of way your blog makes me rethink becoming a nurse (I think it’s timing, I start in Feb). Not because I don’t want to, but because there is something incredibly appealing about doing what you do. It goes back to summers I spent as a kid on a family ranch. I wanted to say thanks for letting people like me in on your strife, humor, turmoil, and life as a farmer/ steward (of conscious and not so conscious animals). You help me at least to share one aspect of life I will not miss out on, because of your decision to share your endeavors. Cheers. And oysters.

  2. Wow, you’ve certainly given me new appreciation for the work of sea stewardship. Impressive. If I’d had to guess, I would have said that oystering is easier than other forms of fishing, but now I don’t think I’d say so. I have a rather limited appetite for seafood, and bivalves have never been something I put on the menu. (Which makes giving up seafood in pursuit of a local diet trivially easy for me.) But if I were going to eat seafood, I’d want it to be yours. Hope the little shellcritters fare well over the winter.

  3. Great story, full of hard work, stewardship, anticipation, and cold weather! I never knew oysters could survive any length of time out of water. Hope they stocked up on sufficient krill or whatever in their tinier incarnation. Looks like you had a gorgeous Cape Cod day to do the work, but I know how biting and raw that Cape air can be. As with so many of your stories, I am grateful for the educational benefit your blog affords – today I learned some interesting shellfish lore I would never have searched out, yet now savor here in the high desert.

  4. That sounds like something I couldn’t do, for a lot of reasons. I don’t do cold, I don’t do bent over for stretches at a time (my back kills just thinking about it) and I really don’t do open water (after nearly drowning as a five-year-old, which evidently scarred me for life). So I have a HUGE appreciation for what you’re doing. I hope they all survive well for you.

  5. Wow! Hard work indeed. Working in the cold and wet makes for a tough individual. I find hard work to be awfully rewarding work in the end. Perservere. Your payoff will be hugely satisfying. I’m so impressed by your lifestyle. As a teacher once said “Thank you for your hard work.”

  6. That post was fascinating. And you’re right that the devil is in the details. How DID they do that before neoprene? And I second how tiring it is to work at that awkward, half-bent-at-the-waist angle.

    I wish I could verbalise why it seems like a contradiction to care so deeply for the life of an animal (or bivalve) that you eventually intend to kill and eat, but it really isn’t. It makes perfect sense. Maybe a small part of it is monetary, but a bigger part is something else.

    Is it wrong to find the quinoa-sized oysters kind of cute?

  7. I used to work in Sydney, doing a huge train-commute. Every Day – Four hours.

    The only highlight of the trip was seeing the oyster farmers pootling along in their boats near the mudflats of the Hawkesbury River (just south of Woy Woy). The sun would be just past rising, draping everything with those long golden-yellow rays. The water is shallow, but still dark-blue, like the most perfect sheet of glass.

    I would stare, engrossed, only for those few brief seconds as the train thundered us past.

    What was it like to be out in such a heavenly place? Did the ocean air smell nice this morning? Was the water cold – but refreshing? How did I end up after so many years of school spending my working life rotting away on a train, then later at a desk? “For the money”, I’d remind myself. It didn’t seem like much of a trade.

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