So You Want to be An Oyster Farmer?
Since the two earlier articles on oyster farming in 2014 and 2015, there have been inquiries about what’s involved to get into oyster growing – the energy, the time, the costs and how you would get started. This is a big and growing topic and what follows is a sampling of what’s happening in local and nearby coastal states. Names and phone numbers that may be helpful follow at the end.
The U.S. Department of Labor lists oyster farming as a job where salary expectations are $29,000 to $107,000 annually. They describe a person leasing land, acquiring oyster “seeds” from a hatchery, placing the seed in tanks with recycled oyster shells and moving them when partially grown to containers suspended just above the bottom. This is a very abbreviated picture of oyster farming.
There’s no mention of going to the site when the partially grown oysters need to be turned when they are grown in shallow water or winching up the heavy bags of oysters when they are grown in deep water. They don’t include in the job description bringing partially grown oysters back ashore to sort and tumble them to encourage rounder growth, deeper cups and more marketable looking oysters.
While the Labor Department calls their job description “Oyster Farming,” what they describe is the process of shellfish aquaculture, which is the controlled raising, breeding, growing and containment of shellfish in a hatchery and later in the water, on or off the bottom. They suggest this as a job for those who are persistent; details oriented and are logical thinkers. It would also be useful to have good problem solving skills and be a critical thinker. People who don’t have a bayman’s well developed work ethic or who look for instant gratification should look at other kinds of work.
There are several ways to get into oyster farming. It works differently from state to state and even in the counties and towns of the same states. You will want to take classes to learn how this all works. This is where you will find other people with the same interests. In New York, Cornell Cooperative Extension is part of the Suffolk County effort to restore the bays. Their SPAT Program stands for Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training and also defines the tiny shellfish produced by spawning in the hatchery. Cornell Cooperative gives classes in Southold that will help you become an oyster farmer. Their classes are given once a month on such topics as algae culture techniques and broodstock conditioning and spawning.
You will want to find out the cost and availability of leases for bay bottom that towns and counties offer. Leases through Suffolk County are for deep water areas of Peconic or Gardiners Bay and are for different durations and costs than local Long Island towns. You would need a winch to bring the oysters up from the bottom.
The Town of Islip currently has a waiting list of prospective oyster farmers but is considering adding to the available lease space. Their leases are for space near the Fire Island Inlet and Sexton Island. The leased acreage is in shallow water and reachable with a small work boat.
In East Islip, Great Atlantic Shellfish Farms offers classes in oyster gardening, the non-commercial production of cultured oysters for resource enhancement, improvement of water quality and consumption. Starting Thursday, June 1st from 6 to 8 pm at the hatchery on Bayview Avenue, they will give four two-hour seminars on aquaculture, hatchery culture, the nursery phase and the grow-out program. Students will do field work with 1,000 juvenile oysters given to them. Field work is done inside or outside the hatchery on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. At the end in October when the oysters go out into the bay, students get 100 oysters to take home. The crew at the hatchery will be happy to give prospective students a walk-around tour inside and outside the hatchery. The oyster gardening classes offer waterfront property owners the opportunity to learn how to grow oysters in their backyards.
New York Harbor School teaches aquaculture as part of its maritime heritage. A New York City public school located on Governor’s Island that provides traditional education and integrates the maritime culture and experience into its curriculum, Harbor School serves city children in grades 9 to 12 who have an interest in a maritime career. Students come to school on an 8 am ferry from the Battery Maritime Building. The ferry trip is about 15 minutes and the school is about an eight minute walk from the ferry dock. Students work toward understanding the fundamentals of what makes aquaculture work – water chemistry, organism biology, business and marketing. Students can major in aquaculture, marine systems technology, marine biology research, ocean engineering, professional diving and vessel operations. Seniors apply their knowledge as part time oyster farmers and participate in the oyster research program for the Billion Oyster Project. Harbor School is where the Billion Oyster Project originated – the goal is to clean up New York Harbor by building 100 acres of oyster reefs by 2030. Students who graduate from an aquaculture program like this would make good partners in an oyster aquaculture business.
The sixteen classes that make up the Applied Shellfish Farming course given at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island have been set up as online classes as well. These classes include an overview of shellfish farming, the permit process, maintaining a lease and advice on business and marketing. In Rhode Island the course is considered an important learning opportunity for prospective shellfish farmers.
Perry Raso graduated in 2002 from the University of Rhode Island Aquaculture Program, started oyster farming, digging wild grown oysters and clams to make a living, and was one of eighteen oyster farmers. Now, one of more than fifty, he owns a restaurant and supplies his own restaurant and others with oysters. An association was formed in the 1990s to educate policymakers about regulatory obstacles. The Ocean State Aquaculture Association worked toward streamlining government regulations. Perry Raso’s successful oyster farming business is a reflection of the cooperation of Rhode Island’s academic community and government agencies.
In Branford, Connecticut Bren Smith became an oyster farmer in 2003. His crop was buried in mud from the Irene and Sandy storms. Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Company has switched to caged oysters and has diversified. He has added mussels, clams, scallops and kelp to his caged oysters. Smith’s three-dimensional farm uses the entire water column, with oysters and clams on the bottom, kelp and mussels growing on floating ropes above the clams and oysters and his scallops hang between the ropes in cages.
Connecticut’s government is working on a Nitrogen Trading Program which will reimburse oystermen for the nitrogen their oysters filter from Long Island Sound every year. They also can count on Dr. Charles Yarish at the University of Connecticut who has worked with Connecticut’s oyster and seaweed farmers and shared research with Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York.
In New York the Shinnecock tribe received a grant in 2004 to purchase equipment to restart the shellfish aquaculture program they had in the 1970s. The venture started in 1973 after several members of the tribe went to the Indian School of Aquaculture. Their program failed when brown tide and nitrogen runoff created a hostile environment for the new oysters. In their growing season the oysters can reach market size in eight to ten months which is pretty unusual. The Shinnecocks are doing well the second time with oyster production up significantly.
The Native American tribe that now owns the Foxwoods Casino left oystering to concentrate their energy on the Casino. They sold their floating upweller system (known to oyster growers as a “Flupsy”) that was built on a steel barge, to an oyster grower in South Jersey. An Atlantic Cape scallop boat towed the Flupsy to the southern top of New Jersey. This upweller system is used to bring nutrients to the minuscule growing oysters.
Oyster aquaculture can be lucrative and rewarding once the start-up costs are paid off. Is it the $29,000 to $107,000 paycheck the U.S. Department of Labor thinks it is? Most oyster farmers in business more than a year will tell you it’s not as financially rewarding as they thought it would be. Although weather and predators will affect oyster crops, the warmer water temperatures that have affected lobster and finfish populations don’t seem to affect oysters. What has a greater positive or negative effect on the success of oyster farmers is how the farmers’ home state handles aquaculture. Many state and local government agencies have pulled together with academic communities to provide a safe passage for the entrepreneurs willing to try oyster farming and have awareness that entrepreneurs’ time is valuable.
Some states have old laws on the books that predate aquaculture. There’s a reason New Jersey, with more miles of shoreline than Massachusetts, has less than fifty oyster farmers and Massachusetts has over two hundred. There’s a coastal culture in some states and Massachusetts has it. For an interesting insight into how the government works with oyster farmers in New Jersey, read about one oysterman’s bizarre battle with the State. www.NJ.com/news/index.ssf2015/09cape_may_oyster_farmer_shut_down.
There are major expenses upfront to become an oyster farmer. Assuming you have a suitable boat for trips to the shallow water where your oysters are, or a winch on your boat to bring up the oysters from deep water, you will need to pay for a lease, insurance, gear, bags, anchors for the bags, seed and a sorter/tumbler. Some say a suitable boat and $20,000 will do it. Knowing that after putting your oyster seed out in the bay, the first oysters may not grow big enough to sell for two years makes you think about doing the oyster farming part time so you have income coming in. In case you thought this was easy work, like watching grass grow, it’s not. This is hard work but it’s also working on the water. People who do oyster farming still think of it as fun.
For information on:
Suffolk County Aquaculture and Leasing Programs
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Kim Tetrault or Greg Rivera
Town of Islip Bay Bottom Leasing Program
Environmental Control (631) 595-3680
Great Atlantic Shellfish Farms Oyster Gardening Program
Doug Winter (631) 943-1208
New York Harbor School Billion Oyster Project
Peter Malinowski (212) 458-0800
Roger Williams University Aquaculture Program
Cheryl Francis (401) 254-3110
Bren Smith (203) 533-9670