Underwater Farms: The East Coast Oyster Industry Fortifies Itself Against a Changing Environment
“We came within a nanometer of going out of business,” Bill Mook remembers. As the owner of Mook Sea Farm, a shellfish hatchery in mid-coast Maine, Bill just barely averted disaster. “I started the year with nine or ten employees. By the end of fall, I was down to three.”
He was desperate to discover what was making his oyster larvae incapable of metamorphosis, which was leading to zero output. And so, he decided to embark on a month of night-time investigations. He donned black clothes, turned off his headlights while parked on the side of a nearby highway, and scoured the area around his hatchery with a red-lens flashlight. At the hatchery’s water source, he finally stumbled upon the answer.
“My neighbor, who owned a septic tank-pumping business, was illegally dumping waste within about 100 to 150 yards of our intake. He was doing it on a frequency that interfered with every single spawn that we did for the entire year,” Bill recounts. One private investigator and a lawsuit later, Mook Sea Farm recovered and continued as it had since 1985, producing oyster seed for shellfish farmers up and down the East Coast, from North Carolina to Maine.
But eleven years later, in 2009, the oyster larvae in the Mook Sea Farm hatchery slowed down again. This time, no one was dumping sewage into the body of water that fed the hatchery. After a season spent expending enormous effort to coax the larvae into metamorphosis, normally a swift process, Bill began to investigate this newest mystery.
A clue arrived when two oyster farmers from the West Coast visited Bill’s farm. One of the farmers, who oversaw a hatchery in Oregon, reported that his hatchery’s seed production had recently dropped by 70 to 80 percent. In comparing stories with Bill, the farmers realized that their larvae had exhibited similar symptoms. At the West Coast hatcheries, they had determined that the devastation was due to offshore winds, which caused an upwelling of acidic water. The resulting acidity was causing massive problems for the oyster larvae.
The problems at Bill’s hatchery were much like the West Coast ones—but the source of acidification was different. In his case, the acidic water hadn’t come from upwelling; instead, it was the result of a combination of runoff from rainfall—which had been frequent in the spring of 2009—and increasing carbon dioxide levels dissolving in the ocean.
“The net effect of all of it combined was that we were experiencing ocean acidification,” he says.
This episode of struggling larvae and environmental deterioration served as a stark reminder: the oyster industry depends, to a remarkable degree, on clean water.
When I set out to learn more about the East Coast oyster industry, I knew very little about it. I abandoned my plan for a pretty profile of what struck me as a quintessential New England business soon after encountering stories like Bill’s. How was his hatchery’s decline explained by the interactions of environmental changes, state regulations, and internal changes within the industry? Was it a trend replicated across oyster farms? The questions only became more complicated with the unknowns of climate change, and I wondered: How are oyster farmers responding to all of these changes?
I started, though, with a smaller question. Where do oysters come from? Of the two types of oysters—cultured and wild—the former all originate in the same place: a hatchery.
This story starts at the hatchery of the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, owned by Sarah and Steve Malinowski since 1987. One of only a few hatcheries that serve the approximately 400 oyster farms on the East Coast, the Malinowskis’ hatchery is accessible by a ferry service that shuttles passengers between Fishers Island and the mainland several times a day.
One morning in late October, I sit at the front of the ferry near a group of four middle-aged men going golfing. They confirm my preconceptions of the island: a less-touristy version of neighboring Block Island, the sort of summer refuge for New Englanders who have passed down family houses for generations. I spend the forty-five minutes on the ferry listening to their conversation about summer homes and holidays in Europe and trying to remember if I have ever eaten an oyster. Upon deciding that I have not, I meet Sarah Malinowski at the ferry drop-off. On our way to her house, we pass rows of cottages in the mottled shingles native to sleepy coastal towns like Wood’s Hole and Narragansett.
We turn into the driveway and park in front of a low, squat building beside their house, which overlooks the harbor. Sarah points to the smaller building, a former dog kennel.
Later, when Steve takes me on a tour, he points to the discolored grooves on the cement floor, where the individual stalls used to stand. In their decades of running an oyster farm, the Malinowskis have refurbished the kennel into a hatchery capable of producing 40 to 50 million oyster seed per year. The seed is two to three millimeters across by the time it exists the hatchery. But the journey to those three millimeters is hardly simple—each step of the highly regimented process requires supervision.
Steve starts the tour in a room containing the water pump responsible for the 7,000 gallons of water that get drained, reheated, and refilled every day. The first step of the process happens here, in the tall cages lining the walls, where the oyster’s food, phytoplankton, is stored. It takes about a month to produce concentrations of phytoplankton that are high enough to feed the hatchery’s oysters.
Steve leads me to the next room, where there are several large basins. They are empty now, but by the first week of December, they will house the all-important parent stock of oysters. Steve and his team bring in 200 adult oysters as the parent stock, chosen from the one million oysters that the farm cultivates in the harbor. Selection criteria include shape, size, and color, and a deep, round cup.
“It takes two to three weeks of holding them in warm water, feeding them a ton of food, to essentially trick them into thinking it’s July,” Steve says. The team uses temperature stimulation to help the oyster spawn, fifteen at a time, before it puts the fertilized eggs in tanks.
I follow him into another room where several large cylinders occupy most of the space. Steve taps the side of one and it rings, hollow and metallic. The oyster larvae grow in these tanks for two to three weeks, swimming constantly.
At the start of the larval stage, there are 20 million larvae in each tank and in the days following, Steve and his team cull them until there about five million in each tank. Bill Mook’s oysters stopped growing during this larval stage both times his farm went into crisis mode. The first time, not a single oyster passed this stage, inexplicably frozen in the midst of its transition.
The larval stage is pivotal—by its end, the oysters must be ready for metamorphosis in order to enter the last phase of their hatchery life.
“When they go through metamorphosis, it’s just as dramatic as a butterfly and a caterpillar,” Steve says. His enthusiasm is evident, though I can’t quite believe that the metamorphosis of near-microscopic oyster larvae is reminiscent of a chrysalis unraveling to reveal a brilliant, dewy monarch.
The larvae, capable of propelling themselves through the water, eventually find a spot to “set,” or affix themselves onto bits of shell. Steve’s team grinds down the shells until each grain is the size of the larvae, so only one larva can fit on an individual grain. In the 24 hours following attachment, “the oysters explode in size, develop a gill, and essentially become miniature adults. They’ll never move again for the rest of their lives,” says Steve, which strikes me as rather dramatic after all.
Upon graduating from the hatchery, most of the seed is transplanted to the Malinowskis’ nursery, a salt pond just minutes up the road. The nursery is an intermediate stage in which oysters grow from anywhere between half an inch to almost two inches. At that point, they can be deposited into the farm itself, out in open water, where they will grow to market size. Since most oyster farmers do not have their own nurseries, they purchase the Fishers Island seed post-nursery.
For the next stage in the life of a cultured oyster, I travel to Bridgeport, Connecticut to meet Charles Viens, the owner of Charles Island Oyster Farm and one of the few producers in the state with his own nursery. Floating in the Yellow Mill Creek, Viens’ nursery shares the riverside with gray apartment buildings and a handful of commercial properties. A bridge clogged with noontime traffic crosses the river a couple of miles down. The setting is far from the serene pastels of Fishers Island.
I follow Viens down onto the dock, where a floating mass of cages is tethered to the wood.
“We get all our seed from Fishers Island. Steve’s the best around,” he says, his rapid gait sending me hurrying over the uneven planks. “We bought two million this year and two million last year.”
The seed goes in silos that are stored under the dock until the oysters are 1.5 inches across. A pump pushes water consistently over the top of the oysters, the continuous movement tricking them into growing faster. When they reach 1.5 inches Viens transfers them into bags to fatten them for the winter. Like the seed grown at Steve and Sarah’s salt pond, the oysters developed in this nursery are consistent in coloring, size, and shape, a product of their regulated origins.
But these perfect oysters, bought from hatcheries like the one on Fishers Island and painstakingly curated in controlled environments like the Charles Island nursery, are not the industry norm. Farmers have different reasons for engaging in this intensive process. For Viens, the decision to cultivate cultured oysters is predicated in large part on shifting consumer preferences—it’s all about taste profiles and marketing.
“Long Island Sound is more brackish and produces a less salty oyster than Maine,” he explains.
Increasingly, consumers favor smooth, round textures, most reliably found in cultured oysters like those from the Bridgeport nursery or Fishers Island. “It’ll keep going in that direction,” he predicts, and he plans to continue increasing the proportion of cultured oysters he produces.
Still, Viens’ cultured oysters are not the norm. At this point, most of Charles Island Oyster Farm’s product and the great majority of oysters that go to market are “wild” oysters. Charles Island’s wild oysters come from seed that the crew obtains from natural beds and transplants to their lot, 28 acres in the Long Island Sound. There, the wild seed collects on the ocean floor and grows alongside the cultured oysters, many of them in cages.
To get a better sense of this process, responsible for the majority of oyster production on the East Coast, I join a Charles Island harvesting crew early one morning. We leave from a marina in Milford, Connecticut on a former lobstering boat named The Mohawk. The crane-like contraption affixed to the front of the boat is a dredge—the piece of equipment that most producers in Connecticut use to harvest oysters. The dredge has teeth that get just under the surface of the ocean floor, pushing down against it and scraping along its top layer.
I spend most of my time in the tiny cabin at the back of the boat, watching the proceedings from the relative comfort of the captain’s swiveling chair. The captain of the boat is Joe Kowalsky, a young but seasoned oyster boat captain who Charles Viens describes as his right-hand man. In a royal blue Charles Island Oyster Farm T-shirt, Joe stands before the cabin window with an e-cigarette in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. A plaque on the door to the cabin proclaims “When everything else fails, try doing what the Captain suggested.” Another one near my elbow is engraved with “The Captain is always right.”
When we arrive at the lot leased to Charles Island Oyster Farm, near the tiny, uninhabited, eponymous island, Joe picks a spot using the boat’s GPS. We circle for hours as the dredge enters the water, scoops up a heap of oysters, and deposits the pile on the table. The deckhands get to work chipping clusters apart and sorting the individual oysters by size, wearing protective all-weather gear and thick rubber gloves. Despite the gloves’ bulk, the deckhands easily go through two pairs a week due to the oysters’ sharp edges.
While they work, Joe delivers a crash-course on the Connecticut oyster industry.
“Wild oysters are not a nice, peaceful farm. It’s like the Wild West, with guys stealing from each other,” he declares. I look around, doubtful. The Mohawk is bobbing on fairly calm waters, all other boats just an afterthought on the horizon. Even the beach cottages on the shore are closer to us; it is exactly the sort of place I would describe as a nice, peaceful ocean farm.
That’s because we’re not on the public beds, Joe informs me. We are on private land—the Charles Island Oyster Farm lot—and the wild oysters being harvested right now were taken from public land and deposited here, out of reach of any other oyster harvesters. The public oyster beds, like those in the nearby Housatonic river, are owned by the state, which regulates when they are opened or closed for harvesting. The bed on the Housatonic, one of the biggest oyster beds in the area, has been closed for a year and is set to reopen the weekend after my trip to the Charles Island site.
Joe is obviously frustrated by the closure, which can interfere with oyster harvesting. He joined the shellfish commission in Stratford, Connecticut, which has jurisdiction over the Housatonic river, to become more involved in the regulatory process.
A few days after my conversation with Joe, Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture extension specialist with the Connecticut Sea Grant, describes to me the criteria that dictate closures.
“There are a couple areas in the state where they are currently closed due to some sort of pollution and, in some cases, that pollution source might not be there anymore,” she explains. “But the area wasn’t tested because the state has finite resources,” and the certification for harvesting from the public oyster beds requires many rounds of testing and a dataset that accounts for water pollution across different weather conditions and seasons.
But out at the Charles Island’s farm, we are at a different stage in the process. The market-sized oysters that The Mohawk’s crew are harvesting have grown significantly from the seed that was transplanted from the public beds. After processing, the deckhands will bag them and put them in the cooler to be shipped to restaurants upon docking. An average day will net the crew 50 to 60 bags, with 100 oysters in each. These are wild oysters, ready for sale.
The differences between wild and cultured oysters go beyond the rougher appearance of the former. A central distinction is the harvesting operations. The tranquil floating cages of the nurseries are the standard for cultured oysters, grown in the cages’ relative protection. The wild oysters mature on the ocean floor and are collected by a dredge.
Joe calls the dredge a necessary evil. Steve, at Fishers Island, avoids dredging entirely, which he can do because he only harvests oysters that have come out of his hatchery. He uses floating gear, a network of suspended cages, so the oysters do not settle on the bottom.
Steve describes the dredging used by most companies as part of a process called extensive farming.
“They do it the same way that it’s been done for 150 years, which is to dump shell into estuaries. Some of the wild oyster larvae in those estuaries will set on the shell pile,” he explains. “They’ll leave it there for a year or so, and then they’ll go in with a big boat, dredge it up, and move it to another part of the Sound, where they’ll let it grow to maturity.”
Steve practices intensive farming, a strategy that uses some sort of structure, like his floating gear. He takes me out to the grow-out site in Fishers Island’s West Harbor, where the farm harvests one million oysters coming out of the hatchery and salt pond nursery. I follow him onto a small motorboat tethered to the dock behind his house.
“This is known at the farm as my boat,” he tells me as we hop in.
“Does she have a name?” I ask.
He grins. “Steve’s boat.”
Steve’s boat putters out of the cove and into the harbor until we reach several lines of submerged nets waving with the current. The farm’s suspension culture is key to the environmental sustainability that Sarah and Steve are so proud of.
“It’s as if, instead of clearing the forest to plant a field of crops, you have the field of crops above the forest, so you have both the crops and the forest co-existing,” Steve says. “You never impact the bottom or the forest that’s growing below it.”
Proud as he is of his farm’s techniques, which he sees as the most sustainable in the industry, Steve praises all oyster farming.
“What’s important to keep in mind is that every kind of oyster farming is a net positive,” he says.
I wonder, then, if there is a meaningful environmental difference in the type of dredge harvesting required for wild oysters and the intensive farming favored for cultured oysters.
One of the largest oyster farms on the East Coast, Norm Bloom and Son’s Copps Island Oysters uses dredges for nearly all of their harvest. I head to one of Copps Island’s sites in New Haven to meet Patty King, a current clam boat captain and former oyster boat captain who has worked with the company for eighteen years.
The Jeanne Christine, a 120-foot shell boat docked at the site, looms over us. It is a huge boat, larger than any I have seen at other oyster farms, and it is used to dump giant mounds of dry, clean shell on sites that the company owns all around Long Island Sound. The oysters spawn naturally on the shell beds they create.
“We’re just helping Mother Nature along,” she remarks cheerfully while we walk to the experimental hatchery at the site, opened a year ago. Patty says they are in the trial and error stage, trying to replicate successful results on a larger scale. “But we’re mostly wild farmed oyster right now,” she is quick to clarify. “The best way is Mother Nature. You can’t duplicate it.”
The hatchery, she says, is a backup, in case of devastating events like the two recent East Coast hurricanes.
I ask Patty about her thoughts on the dredging that the company uses to harvest wild oysters: is she worried about lasting environmental impacts?
She points me in the direction of a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in 2011, which examined the potential effects of shellfish dredging on ocean environments. They couldn’t find a significant difference, she says, between different machineries used to harvest oysters. When I checked that study later on, I found that it concluded that the potential negative effects of shellfish dredging are typically short-lived. The authors write that shellfish cultivation via dredging can be sustainable when long-term effects on the ocean floor are mitigated by “a combination of selective harvesting practices” including “careful site selection” and “seasonal harvesting…to allow time for recovery.”
In light of this evidence, oyster farming of all types, extensive and intensive, large-scale and small-scale, appears extraordinarily sustainable. An acute awareness of the industry’s dependence on a healthy environment seems embedded in the practices and philosophies of the oyster farmers I have spoken to. But there is another side to the industry.
In public oyster beds like those that were temporarily closed in the Housatonic River, some harvesters’ environmental awareness is lacking.
“Those guys ground down lots of natural beds until they’re worthless,” says Joe while we are out on The Mohawk. “When the lobster industry died off all those guys came over, and they work as fishermen. They work it, catch all they can, and then move on to the next thing.”
When he first started in the oyster industry, Joe worked for one such company. While that work was more personally profitable, he knew that if he kept working in that way, the oysters would disappear.
“This is what I want to do, and it’s going in a downward trajectory. I need to work towards changing it, so I can keep doing it,” he says. “There are fewer and fewer natural beds available and tighter and tighter rules and regulations. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The unsustainability of that kind of harvesting drove Joe to join the Charles Island Oyster Farm. “It’s more like a farm than a company. We try to make sure there’s always something for the future,” he says.
In addition to being more environmentally friendly, the farm’s combination method of raising their own oysters and cultivating wild ones, as well as avoiding over-harvesting in certain areas, tends to be economically profitable in the long-term.
“They ask how a guy with twenty-eight acres stays in business?” Joe says. “The reason we can stay in business is that we’re farmers, not fishermen.”
I am still trying to figure out the difference when I meet with TJ Londregan, the owner of the Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm (NBSF). Floating on the Niantic River, just west of Mago Point and on the other side of Hole in the Wall Beach, NBSF is a newcomer to the industry, founded in 2013.
After a childhood spent lobstering with his grandfather in this very bay, TJ spent three years at Fishers Island Oyster Farm learning the oyster farming business from Sarah and Steve. Like them, he farms only cultured oysters, which he obtains from seed coming out of Fishers Island’s nursery.
“It’s kind of like craft beer. Are you going to drink craft beer or Budweiser?” he says about the difference between cultured and wild oysters.
Despite TJ’s efforts, breaking into the shellfish industry has not been easy, and his main troubles are regulatory, particularly with respect to permits. He has been waiting on one lease for three years.
“Connecticut is behind the curve in aquaculture,” he says. “We have a less developed program. There are only 22 oyster producers in Connecticut, and there are a lot of barriers to entry.”
He is not the only oyster farmer to mention the oyster industry’s high level of regulation—every farmer I meet speaks about it at length.
“We feel our industry is the most highly-regulated food industry in the United States right now. You’re much more likely to get sick from eating lettuce than you are from eating an oyster,” Sarah Malinowski says. “The perception is otherwise, and I think it’s because we’re so highly regulated.”
Charles Viens also mentions the regulations.
“We’re at the mercy of the state,” he says. “We’re very highly regulated. They regulate my boats. They regulate my dredge sizes.”
Part of the difficulty, according to TJ, is that the state has many rules in place for oyster farmers but finds it increasingly difficult to enforce those regulations and approve oyster farms, due to a chronic lack of resources. As this point, TJ says, if the Bureau of Aquaculture—the state authority that oversees most regulations related to oyster farming—does not get enough funding, they will not have the staff to run samples, like water quality and meat samples. Without that sampling, the whole Connecticut shellfish industry will shut down.
“If there are no samples, there are no sales. If there are no sales, we’re going out of business,” he says.
Patty King, too, mentions the importance of consistent regulatory work to ensure shellfish harvesting can continue. At a recent shellfish farmers meeting convened by regulators, she says they were warned that there was not enough staffing, primarily due to budget cuts.
“They warned us that they don’t have the same scientists to do all the tests they used to,” she says.
In an email, David Carey, Director of the Connecticut Bureau of Aquaculture, tells me that “the Budget is under continuing cost reduction measures but it has not significantly impacted the regulatory nature of our work to date.” A decrease in funding would, however, have a major impact on shellfish operations in the state given the monitoring required to ship shellfish interstate.
“The National Shellfish Sanitation Program Model Ordinance requires very strict monitoring and inspection of all harvest, boats, facilities, and trucks,” he writes. “Staff must identify and assess the impact of all potential and actual pollution sources within watersheds impacting shellfish growing areas.”
If there are any reductions in the workforce’s capability to carry out the necessary procedures, then there could be more of the site closures that directly impact shellfish harvesting and commercial operations. But Carey notes that “the Department has not faced this situation at any level of significance.”
State oversight and regulations are clearly a major part of the industry, providing the framework in which all farms, regardless of size and methods, have to operate. In addition to regulations, all oyster farms depend in large part on the environment. I return to the distinction Joe drew between fishermen and farmers, seeking to understand the ways oyster harvesters respect and cultivate their relationship with the environment. There are varying extents to which oyster farms can be integrated into their surroundings, and some of them are at the forefront of an already sustainable industry. But as Bill Mook recounted in the disaster that struck his farm, the relationship works both ways. If the environment has a profound effect on oysters, then what do environmental changes mean for the industry?
For answers, I first turn to Chester Arnold, Co-Director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR). He points to the nitrogen coming into the Long Island Sound as a major concern for the shellfish industry.
“We’re now at a point where runoff—which is mostly urban runoff in our area, not agricultural—is the largest single source of nitrogen going into the Long Island Sound,” he says.
Areas characterized by high levels of artificially added nitrogen can develop into dead zones—environments with no oxygen. Large amounts of nitrogen create blooms of either macro algae or phytoplankton, which eventually settle to the bottom, where the bacteria start feeding on them. There is so much biomass that the bacteria use up the oxygen.
“One way to get rid of that phytoplankton is to have a lot of filter feeders,” Steve explains. The phytoplankton are food for the filter feeders, which, in areas near shore, tend to be predominantly shellfish.
“Not only are we adding all this nitrogen, but we harvested all the shellfish that were there,” he says.
Sarah is quick to clarify her husband’s words. “Others did. We didn’t.”
“Right, we didn’t,” Steve agrees. “We’re not fishermen, we’re farmers.”
Runoff creates more problems than just nitrogen levels. “The septic systems and sewage system get overloaded due to the rainfall,” Steve explains. “There are also certain areas, including most of Connecticut, where if it rains an inch they close it down. Here, right across the way, there’s a shellfish operation that gets shut down for a week at a time many times a year.”
Runoff partially contributed to the crash in the lobster industry a few years ago, a downturn from which it still has not recovered. According to Joe, there are two main factors that explain the industry’s collapse.
“First, the West Nile virus killed lobsters,” he attests. “When the government would spray to kill mosquitos, the spray would get into the run-off and then into the lobsters and kill them. Second, there was an insane amount of pressure on the lobsters. From ’99, to 2000, to ’01, you could’ve walked to Long Island on top of buoys.”
The delicate balance struck between between fishermen and the lobster population collapsed with the introduction of the mosquito spray.
“It happened literally in a weekend,” Joe remembers. “They were gone.”
New York State still authorizes the spraying, and Joe says his friends working in the lobster industry can see a direct correlation.
“If they spray on a Friday, and you get some rain over the weekend, you’re getting dead lobsters by the middle of next week,” he tells me.
While the oyster industry has not faced such a drastic event recently, oyster farmers—along with other shellfish farmers—are facing the looming threat of what Chester Arnold calls the x-factor: climate change.
“The interaction between pollutants and changing water temperature is something that nobody has a really good handle on,” he says. “Most of the researchers I’ve talked to about the lobster industry crash think that water temperature had a big role to play in that. The lobsters were more susceptible to various diseases and also possibly pollutants.”
Bill Mook, from Mook Sea Farm, has responded in concrete ways following his brush with ocean acidification-induced disaster. He is in the process of building a 9,000-square-foot facility on his property, part of which will be used for further research. “We’re looking down the road and preparing ourselves for anticipated climatic changes, changes in seawater chemistry,” he says.
Following some of his findings, Bill changed elements of his hatchery process. “Every time we bring seawater in to do a water change for our larvae, we have to buffer it. A buffer would be like putting Tums in the water—basically, you’re putting in carbonate ions to bring up the pH, so the larvae are able to make their shells better.” It is an intensive process, as the water is drained and changed every two days and, every time they do a water change, they have to add the buffer.
While his hatchery—and other hatcheries experiencing ocean acidification—have successfully responded to this changing environmental factor, the sheer unknown of climate change makes it difficult to preempt negative impacts on the oyster industry.
“I believe these changes in seawater temperatures are going to continue, especially with the current administration in place,” Bill says. “When I look at having my business survive, I’m looking for ways to diversify and be able to grow.”
At Charles Island Oyster Farm’s nursery, I watch the cages of oysters glistening on the surface. I think about these cultured oysters, part of the environmentally friendly frontier of an industry already sustainable and profitable, which so many other industries protest is an impossible combination. I think about the many conversations on regulations and environmental changes I have had with representatives from large established companies and small boutique ones. I think about the industry’s dependence on a healthy environment and the farmers’ dedication to sustainable oyster farming, and I understand, now, the difference between farmers and fishermen.
There are oysters, bizarrely, improbably, bobbing in the waters of a channel cutting through urban Bridgeport. They are filtering and feeding in the currents, making this pocket of water just a little clearer, just a little cleaner.