Our seed arrives
Each May, seed is shipped from one of several New England hatcheries (including our own) to the growers at Island Creek. The seeds (baby oysters that are only about 2 millimeters in length) arrive packed in those blue cloths – each cloth packet Gregg Morris is holding contains around 800,000 oysters and weighs two pounds. In eighteen months those oysters will take up an acre of the Bay and weigh around 250,000 pounds.
Because the seed is so small, we keep it contained in a space underneath the Duxbury Bay Maritime School’s docks in an upweller system. Each upweller is made up of 8 boxes, or silos, which growers like Skip Bennett and Mark Bouthillier build from scratch. The boxes have a very fine mesh screen on the bottom – the weave is tight enough so that the baby oysters won’t fall through. The white pipe stretches across the top of the box and attaches to a central trough which is pumped continually with water, providing the baby oysters a constant supply of fresh food.
The upweller, open
The entire upweller system sits underneath the dock. When the doors are open like this, you can see the trough running down the middle, and four silos running down either side of it. Water is pulled up through fine-mesh screens at the bottom of each box and pushed out through the pipes into the trough. The pump, which runs on a small amount of electricity, sits at the bottom edge of the trough and pulls water through the system continuously throughout the summer, giving the oysters a never ending flow of water and
Releasing the seed
Once the upwellers are installed, we release the seed into the bottom of the upweller. Here, one grower carefully unwraps his pack of seed which will float to the bottom of the silo he’s holding it over. It will sit there for several weeks, doubling in size every day.
The seed, sitting on tightly woven micro-mesh screen, is only a few millimeters in size when we first get it (about the size of a pepper flake). In 3 to 4 weeks, it grows to about a 1⁄4 inch.
A few weeks later, it’s quadrupled in size.
By the end of July
…by the end of July, it’s almost 1⁄4 inch in length.
…at which point, we start the process called “grading.” Oysters grow at varying speeds so we separate the larger ones from the ones that need a little more time to grow. To grade them, we sift them over a screen with a 1⁄4-inch weave which catches the larger oysters. The smaller ones fall through into the water. Once they’re separated, we put the smaller ones back in the upweller to continue their growing cycle there; the larger ones are put into the nursery, which lives out on the oyster lease.
Once the seed is 1⁄4 inch, it is moved out to the nursery, a system of cages and mesh bags, as seen here. About 1200 oyster seeds go into each bag, the ends of which are secured with PVC pipe; the bags then go into the cages which sit on the bottom of the bay in a staggered pattern of rows, allowing for maximum water and air flow. The oysters sit in the nursery for about 2 to 3 months (late June through September), continuing to double in size until they are about 2 inches in length….
… which is about the length of a pinkie finger. It’s now late August and the oysters are ready to be planted directly on the bottom of the Bay floor.
Planting is the most ritualistic part of oyster farming. Each oyster farmer has their own grant, or acreage of underwater ground which they lease from the state; each farmer in turn has his own way of planting. One method (the Snow Shovel Cast) is pictured here. Its all about getting the right density (too dense and you get bad oysters, too thin and you run out of space). It’s low-tech and labor intensive but the guys have found that this is what works for them.
Winter on the farm
After all of the oyster seed has been planted, we remove all of the cages from the water and store our gear for the winter. The oysters, meanwhile, remain on the bay floor where they go dormant (refrain from eating, filtering, and growing) for the winter months. Our work isn’t done though – oyster farmers at Island Creek harvest oysters all year round so our crews are still on the water, even when ice like this finds its way all the way into the guzzle.
Harvesting: Hand picking
After 18 months (sometime in August), enough oysters in a given crop are big and strong enough to start harvesting. There are two ways we do this: hand picking and dragging. Hand picking takes place during Duxbury Bay’s very low tides when ten feet of water drains completely out of the bay, revealing the acres of mud flats where our oysters are grown. Here, Skip’s crew spends a morning “out on the rip” – together, they can pick approximately 5,000 to 6,000 oysters in just a few hours.
Because we only have a few low tides each month, farmers also harvest from their boats using small, hand-made dredges made of a metal rake with shallow teeth with a net attached to the back. The farmer drops the rake behind the boat and in slow, careful circles, they let the rake drag behind them over their oyster leases, pulling up several hundred oysters. It is an exercise in delicacy to avoid breaking shells. Because the oysters are grown on barren mud flats, there is little to no bycatch when pulling up our dragging nets.
Harvesting: More dragging
The nets are emptied into orange crates which each hold around 200 oysters, allowing us to easily transport the product from the boats to our floats where the culling takes place.
Once the oysters have been harvested, they’re brought back to the oyster barges where farm crews spend many hours sorting the oysters by size once again. This time, they are searching for the “perfect” Island Creek Oysters, ones that have a deep, round cup and reach three inches in length. Culling can be a breeze or a long, slow process depending on things like the weather, how the oysters are coming up, and how many people are sharing the work. (For pros like Brian, above, the work is always a breeze.)
Oyster Sizes: Regular
We sell most of our oysters when they reach three inches long, like this beautiful baby right here. But since oysters grow at different speeds, the sizes found in a single harvest can range from an inch and a half to five inches.
Oyster Sizes: Large
…what we like to call BAMFO (big-*ss, mother f**ing oysters). This specimen was likely left over from a previous crop and might be close to 2 years old. And in case you’re wondering, yes, we sell these too – they’re perfect for stewing or frying. Ask for them as jumbos, or extra larges.
Washing, Counting, Bagging
Once the oysters have been sorted, we give them a rinse to wash off all the mud using motorized pumps that pull water up from the bay. A few of our oyster farmers now use solar power, generated from panels placed on top of their oyster barges to power these pumps. After the oysters are washed, they are counted out by hand into bags of 100 pieces and sent back to land where they’ll be loaded up into our delivery trucks and shipped out to restaurants.
Our oyster crews work year round to bring oysters straight from the water to your door. We hope you enjoy eating them as much as we like growing them.