Ever wonder how that tender, glistening oyster got from the briny depths to your plate?
Two local oyster farmers, one a newbie, Will MacKay, and the other an old hand, Steve Plant, recently talked about the process of getting local oysters to market.
Steve Plant, who has been working in local waters as an oyster farmer for 17 years, said he worked in finance on Wall Street for the same amount of time before discovering aquaculture.
“That’s how I learned about aquaculture,” he said. “I worked for a guy doing venture capital research.”
Plant said that Jim Markow, another local aquaculture farmer, was his “oyster mentor.”
“I met him through a mutual friend and started working for him years ago,” Plant said. “I didn’t even work for pay, I worked to get (oyster) seed. And then I kind of started my own operation with it. So he and I have been collaborating ever since.”
Plant said he took a sales job for a company in Essex, Conn., for about five years while he was transitioning into oyster farming.
“It eventually got to the point where the fortunes of that company were headed down,” Plant said. “Whereas the fortunes of what I was doing were headed up.”
Plant said the whole idea behind aquaculture was to protect the environment.
“Aquaculture is all about growing pains,” Plant said. “It’s just like farming was, when they started to go from all these individual farmers to al these large-scale operations.”
Wild fish hatcheries, he said, are disappearing and gradually being replaced by aquaculture farms.
“There’s 7 billion of us out here,” Plant said. “You cannot feed them all on wild catch fisheries.”
The beauty of shellfish aquaculture in particular is that it doesn’t have the problem of being environmentally destructive the way cattle or pig farming can be, he said.
“Shellfish aquaculture basically has environmental benefits,” Plant said. “The more shellfish you grow, the cleaner the environment. They take algae out of the water, and simply in their feeding, they lower the risk for algae blooms that can cause all kinds of issues low oxygen, nitrification, all that stuff.”
“In this country (shellfish) were here in vast numbers when the colonists showed up,” he noted. “We industrialized and we urbanized the coast, and lost habitat.”
“So what people like us do, in our own backyards, we culture them and we grow them so they can provide a local source of high-quality seafood,” Plant said. “And it is just so happens they provide us with environmental benefits.”
Plant said aquaculture concept was not well known when he began oyster farming 17 years ago.
“What’s happened is it’s attracted a lot more people into wanting to do this because it is cool,” Plant said. “But the estuary is crowded, and it’s multiuse. And so as more people do it, they seek out areas that are increasingly marginal, and they come into user conflict.”
“It’s farming in every sense of the word,” Plant said. “So if I have a good year I’m flush. I’ll put money away and everything’s cool. If I have a bad year, I draw down.”
There’s potential to make money, but overhead can be steep, Plant said. For example, he spends about $19,000 a year in seed oysters.
“It’s an ongoing thing and it’s constant because every year you get new sets of variables,” Plant said. “And it can come at you from a lot of different directions. That’s why the people who tend to be successful in this business are multigenerational and they’ve been at it for a very very long time.”
Plant says he has four customers: Greenpoint Fish & Lobster in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Gulf Shrimp in Plantsville, Conn.; Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto, and Pangea Shellfish Company in Boston.
Will MacKay started working part-time for Steve Malinowski of Fishers Island Oysters in 2011. He’s now working on his first crop as a solo oyster farmer, in an area just south of Elihu Island in Little Narragansett Bay.
MacKay said because oyster farmers use cages to grow oysters on the sea bottom, they have to go through an application process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get a “structures, fill and dredge” permit.
“The town has to approve it, but essentially it goes to the state and then the feds,” MacKay said. “The feds do a major assessment and review.”
MacKay said he began the onerous license application process in 2014, but it took nearly two years to get through all the paperwork. He noted that the licensing is evolving. MacKay initially went to theTown of Stonington and was told he would have to go through the state and federal governments for licensing.
“First it goes to the Army Corps of Engineers and then it goes off to everyone for review,” MacKay said. “There’s an Endangered Species Act assessment, there’s shorebirds, submerged aquatic vegetation. And the state definitely feeds into recreational boating and commercial fishing impacts.”
The application process also requires precautionary measures for the protection of sturgeon, sea turtles and shorebirds, MacKay said, as well as the type of rope allowed. “They’re really worried about entangling sea turtles,” he said.
“It’s different in town waters if you just want to put oysters on the bottom. You could get that permit in a month or two,” MacKay said. “The hard part about that is, if you put (tiny) oysters on the bottom they’re just going to get eaten by crabs and the tides are going to move them.”
“If you’re bottom planting you want oysters an inch and a half, 2 inches,” he said. “And to get them to that size either you’re spending a lot of money to buy them from someone or you have to have some type of containment … and that needs an Army Corps of Engineers permit.”
“It’s a long process, and then it takes the oysters 18 months to get to market size,” he said. “I got my oysters in the water last August. Hopefully by September or October I’ll have my first market crop.”
“I’m buying ⅜” oysters, and just through natural growth rates and everything else ... the majority of them will be ready at 18 months,” MacKay said. “Some of them will be ready in a year, and others will take about two and a half years.”
“You end up with the slow-growing ones getting clumped in with next year’s fast growers and you get a smoother production curve,” he said. “Every year is different.”
“This is my first spring so I don’t know what the actual growth rate should be,” MacKay said. “My little guys are growing, but not quickly, and the bigger ones have a lot of growth.”
MacKay said that one of his favorite sayings is that what works on paper won’t necessarily work in the real world. “What works for someone out in the Mystic River isn’t going to work for me over in little Narragansett Bay because each ecosystem is completely different,” he said.
“It’s certainly a massive bubble within the oyster world,” MacKay said.“Essentially it’s going to be about finding markets.”
“Certainly historically, oyster consumption is way below where it used to be,” he said. “But that was a very different market, because a lot of that was wild and they were cheap, they were everywhere,”
MacKay says he is planting more seed oysters this summer that he got from the Fishers Island Oyster Farm.
“The stuff I buy is $30 per thousand,” MacKay said. “I’m going to get 300,000 and possibly get some more.”
“Mine are going into bags and the cage is on the bottom, so every week to two weeks I dump them out, sort them and take out any of the ones that are big enough to go into actual cages,” MacKay said. “The rule of thumb is the oyster has to be one and a half times the size of the mesh it’s going to sit on.”
“So when they’re really growing you come back in two weeks and dump it out,” MacKay said. “You have to sort it out. The bigger ones you pull out and then you restock them.”
“There are actually organisms that compete for food with oysters, so you get rid of them.” MacKay said. “There are certain seaweeds and sea squirts that will eat the algae.”
“It’s going to be interesting,” MacKay said of his upcoming first oyster crop.