Out on Katama Bay, with osprey circling overhead and water lapping at the edges of his floating nursery, Jack Blake opens a box of precious cargo.
Inside, what looks to the untrained eye like clumps of shiny, golden brown sand are in fact 100,000 baby oysters, just three months old.
“Wow. Wow, they’re huge,” Mr. Blake says. “They’re doing great.”
It’s the start of a journey for Mr. Blake and these oysters, which will spend the next two years growing in his Katama Bay oyster farm, feeding on algae and growing to be more than three inches in size. Eventually, they will be harvested, cleaned, and shipped, destined for a plate on the Vineyard, or maybe in Nantucket, New York or Boston.
Oyster farming, what some call the next frontier in commercial fishing, has taken off on the Vineyard and around the country. There are 15 and counting Vineyard fishermen now making a living from cultivated oyster farms in Katama Bay and Menemsha Pond. Katama is especially thriving, with 12 active oyster farmers using the maximum allowed bottom aquaculture licenses permitted by the town.
The farms, originally created as a new livelihood for fishermen faced with depleted fish and shellfish stock, are being hailed as a new and ecologically-friendly source of business for fishermen. Vineyarders say that with increased demand for shellfish, there is little competition among the oyster farmers.
Rick Karney, shellfish biologist and longtime executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, sees oyster farming as part of the evolution of the fishing industry, a move from hunting and gathering to farming, just as people did on land.
“It’s really taken off,” Mr. Karney said on Wednesday this week, taking a break from spawning hermaphroditic bay scallops at the group’s shellfish hatchery on the Lagoon. “It’s really been exciting that we’ve had some people be successful at it to the point that other people are jumping on board.”
In 1995, federal grant money became available to wild fishermen, who were struggling after Georges Bank was closed to fishing. The shellfish group launched the Martha’s Vineyard Public Aquaculture Initiative, whose mission was to help fishermen learn new livelihoods on the water.
There were initial concerns about how the farms would impact other fishermen, and about using public fishing areas for private business. “Wild fishermen feel in some way it competes with them,” Mr. Karney said, but “it’s good for fishermen,” because there is less competition for wild resources.
Additionally, guidelines make sure farms are only allowed in areas that won’t diminish wild fisheries, he said.
Some thought oyster farming wouldn’t be a good fit, and that fishermen would prefer fishing in the wild. There were also concerns about using public wild fishing areas for private business.
“At least in this case, we proved them wrong,” Mr. Karney said. The fishermen, who already knew about the tides, the product, and fish markets, embraced oyster farming “like a duck to water,” he said.
Mr. Karney said oyster farms were designated for areas that were traditionally unfavorable for shellfish, so as not to interfere with wild fish cultivations.
“I’m very happy to say we went out on a limb,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to look back and say this is money well spent.”
Mr. Blake’s Sweet Neck farm, which he operates with his wife, Sue, is a model for oyster farms. Other farmers look to Mr. Blake for advice, and he even designed the floating hatchery used by other farmers on the bay.
Mr. Blake was one of the four people first awarded aquaculture licenses in the late 1990s, and now, about 15 years later, he’s running a full-fledged business on his one-acre farm.
On Tuesday, he headed out to his farm in his 23-foot Carolina Skiff with his deckhand Marley, a two-year-old basset hound mix who wears a red life vest and keeps the seagulls away.
“We are at the max,” Mr. Blake said, referring to the full complement of oyster farmers. “I always wanted to see 12 . . . it took a while to catch on. When we finally did figure out how to make money, then they all wanted to do it.”
“There’s a nice group of young kids here,” he added. “Used to be just the old guys.”
Mr. Blake pulled his skiff up to one of his buoys attaching a rope to the top of the oyster cage. He dragged the cage to get the silt out before using a winch to pull the cage, which weighs between 300 and 400 pounds and contains about 1,000 two-year-old oysters, out of the water.
“Oh good, these look big,” he said as the cage emerged. “Sometimes you pull up a cage and they’re all gorgeous.”
“This is home away from home right here,” he said, pulling up to a floating wood dock stacked with cages, adding the one he just pulled up.
Mr. Blake started to unload the crate, revealing a few stowaways: a spider crab and a sea robin. “One out of 10 cages, there’s a lobster,” he said.
One by one, flexible bags are emptied of their roughly 110 oysters into a cylindrical wire tumbler, where they are gently tossed for 20 minutes to get rid of fouling, mussels and barnacles. Mr. Blake set the tumbler timer for 20 minutes and then got back in the boat to check on the babies.
Oyster Farms Across Commonwealth
Oyster farming isn’t confined to Katama Bay. There is one license out to farm mussels in Vineyard Sound, and the Chilmark selectmen have granted five aquaculture licenses for Menemsha Pond, though there are currently only two active oyster farms, said Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group board of directors. The three remaining farmers have been delayed waiting for permits.
“We’re trying to encourage these oyster farms,” Mr. Doty said.“We like having local seafood produced, we like employing guys who work on the water and providing really top quality food for Vineyard customers and Vineyard restaurants.”
Mr. Doty stressed that in Menemsha, oyster farming is just one piece of seafood production. “Commercial fishing is a big part of our economy,” he said. “We believe in wild harvest — lobster, flounder, scallops.”
And while aquaculture is supported, he said, it can’t impede wild fisheries. “We’ve clearly retained an emphasis on wild harvest seafood,” he said, “But we’re for aquaculture too.”
Oyster farms have been established in other parts of the state, including Wellfleet and Duxbury, and other parts of the country such as Chesapeake Bay, Florida and Washington state.
Oyster farming “is not necessarily a new trend,” said Sean Bowen, food safety and aquaculture specialist with the state Department of Agricultural Resources. He said 26 Massachusetts towns have oyster farms; there are 300 shellfish farmers on 1,000 acres. The average size of a farm is two acres.
“I think that it’s a way for individuals in some instances to actually make a living off aquaculture, off two acres or less, which is pretty impressive,” Mr. Bowen said.
Oyster farming is also hailed as environmentally beneficial.
“Shellfish aquaculture is very much a win-win for both the growers and the environment,” he said. “It’s a way for folks who grow up in coastal communities to be able to stay in coastal communities.”
“A big concern in coastal community is nutrient loading,” Mr. Bowen added, which causes algae blooms, degrading water quality in ponds.
But oysters are grazers that feed off algae and convert it into tissue, shell and meat. When the oysters are removed from the water, they take the nutrients, like nitrogen, with them.
Oysters have without question been shown to have an environmental impact, Mr. Bowen said.
Mr. Karney agreed. “If done properly, [oyster farming] can be something of a panacea,” he said, meeting a demand for shellfish while cleaning the water, without costing the taxpayers money.
Depending on water temperature and the type of oyster, Mr. Karney said the average oyster can filter 30 gallons of water each day, “essentially clearing the water.” And on average, 10,000 active, grazing oysters will remove the nitrogen output from one household.
The farmed oysters have also not been susceptible to the same diseases, such as juvenile oyster disease and dermo that have plagued wild populations in the Great Ponds, Mr. Karney said.
Shop Talk on the Bay
Farther up Katama Bay, closer to Edgartown harbor, Mr. Blake steers his boat toward his floating oyster nursery.
On the way, he pulls up to say hi to Sandy Fisher, another oyster farmer. The two engage in some shop talk about technical matters like mesh and galvanization. An overexcited Marley jumps overboard and has to be fished out of the water.
“We mostly ask Jack,” Mr. Fisher says, sitting on the edge of his dock, noting that Mr. Blake is the go-to guy for oyster farming advice.
Mr. Blake and most of the Katama Bay farmers get their oyster seed from Muscongus Bay, a certified hatchery in Maine. The seed can be bred to be resistant to diseases, and Mr. Blake says he’s had a survival rate of 85 to 90 per cent with the seed.
Mr. Blake buys 600,000 oyster seeds every year (they fit in a container the size of a Coke can). In total, Katama Bay oyster farmers buy four million seed oysters annually, which have at least a 50 per cent survival rate, Mr. Blake said.
In 1998, the shellfish group secured state grant funding for Mr. Blake to build and demonstrate his shellfish hatchery/nursery design, with the boxes of seed suspended below the surface of the water, which is propelled through the boxes by the current. The other farmers use Mr. Blake’s design.
The babies were 1.5 millimeters across when Mr. Blake put them in the nursery 10 days ago, and are already growing.
Soon, these oysters will be divided in half, and then split in half again after another 10 days. “It snowballs quickly,” he says. By the end of the summer, “you couldn’t even fit them in this boat.”
By the end of July, they’ll be pushing up on the lids of boxes “like Jiffy Pop,” he says, and will be moved out to the farm for their next phase.
It looks like the market can handle the increased oyster production. Mr. Karney noted that after the emergence in oyster farming in Chesapeake Bay the market was flooded to the point that prices were depressed. But “it seems like the market can kind of handle it now.”
Right now there’s “excitement in something that’s unique,” Mr. Karney said, and “shellfish, especially raw shellfishes, fit that uniqueness.”
Like a fine wine, he said, shellfish have flavor nuances, and are influenced by the water where they grow. Calling the Vineyard “the Napa Valley of shellfish,” he said: “We are blessed with conditions that are very good for shellfish. Even when there are a lot, people are willing to pay extra and purchase the product from here. I think it’s a superior product.”
And it’s a local industry, Mr. Karney said, providing jobs and “making sure people are employed on the water. That’s really what our culture is.”
“It’d be nice if there were more of them,” he said. “I think the markets can handle them at this point.”
Oyster farming has a learning curve, Mr. Karney said, and it can take a while for farmers to become successful. “Guys who have been doing this for a while have been making a nice profit on it now,” he said. Some started out dividing their time between fishing and farming, he said, and more people are turning to farming full-time.
“It’s the way of the future,” said Paul Bagnall, the Edgartown shellfish constable who has seen oyster farming blossom on Katama Bay. “It’s going great.”
Biologically, he said, the bay is doing fine, and so, too, is the relationship between oyster farmers and wild fishermen, with problems worked out as they come up. A lot of the farmers started as wild fishermen, he said, so there is a level of understanding.
People saw the success of the original farmers and came along and copied the business plan, he said. Some are able to make it a nearly full-time business, he said, while others have other jobs on the side.
With oyster farming, “you can pay a small mortgage and maybe your Stop & Shop bill,” Mr. Bagnall said.
Mr. Bagnall said he sees room for expansion — Cape Pogue and Eel Pond both have potential, he said.
Invested for the Future
Back on his float, Mr. Blake looks through the shells, finding large, good-looking oysters: round shells, lots of meat. He knocks barnacles off with a knife. Those selected will be tumbled again, and then pressure-washed — Mr. Blake says he’s the only farmer who pressure-washes his haul — and then packed in boxes for transport.
The oysters are sold by the piece, 85 cents an oyster. For fish markets, they go for 75 cents apiece.
Some of this lot are bound for Nantucket, where Mr. Blake is planning to send 700 oysters on a 4:45 p.m. Cape Air Freight flight later in the day.
Most of the Sweet Neck oysters go to Vineyard restaurants, he says. Nantucket takes half his harvest in summertime, and J.P.’s shellfish takes several thousand in the winter. Some people drive them to Boston, but Mr. Blake said he finds that expensive and time-consuming.
Mr. Blake doesn’t feel there is competition. “It’s not like fishing. This is farming,” he says. “There’s plenty for everybody.”
Sometimes, people sail right up to his farm and buy some oysters right there.
He, too, hopes farming spreads to other areas. “I hope so . . I keep hoping somebody else would get smart,” he says, noting he “[sees] all these ponds out there with potential to produce a lot of food.”
“I think the timing was good for me,” Mr. Blake says. “We’re still nowhere near producing the food that we need.”
“I just can’t throw them out. This is Joey,” he says, picking up a small oyster. “I’ve got room in the bag for him! God, I’ve got two years invested in this.”
"It’s a great way to make a living out here.”