Oyster farming in the Great Bay Estuary is in the midst of a little bit of a boom. In recent years, the number of oyster farms has leapt from 1 to 8, with more on the way. These gains are boosting the hopes that using these filter feeders as an “outside-the-pipes” way to clean up the waters of the Great Bay could become a reality.
Tens and hundreds of millions of oysters used to grow naturally in the Great Bay estuary, but disease and pollution wiped out most of them. That has, in turn, been bad for water quality in the bay. Oysters are filter feeders, and eat the algae and other organisms that are harmful to the Great Bay’s ecosystem.
Today, oysters are being farmed in the same brackish water where they grow naturally, where rivers and ocean tides swirl together and form unique and rich ecosystems. The eight farms in New Hampshire are in Little Bay, which is one step closer to the ocean than Great Bay.
Meet Fat Dog
On the dock of Great Bay Marine, there’s what looks like a little raft tied up, but get close and you hear the hum of a water pump. This is where Fat Dog Oyster Company is based.
“This is where it all starts,” says Jay Baker, gesturing at the raft.
Until recently Baker worked as an environmental regulator in Massachusetts. In what can only be described as a daring career change, he left his cushy desk job to jump head first into New Hampshire’s nascent oyster farming industry.
His new job is a different kind of animal.
“We’ve added this nursery system, it’s called an upweller,” he explains, but then stops mid-sentence, and cocks his ear, “is it running?” It isn’t.
In the upweller, which is kind of like the aquaculture version of a hot-house, a million and a half baby oysters are getting nutrient rich water pumped right into their little filter feeding mouths.
As long as it’s running.
But the breakdown isn’t serious. A stick is lodged in the pump, and Baker’s partner Alex Boeri – a biology major fresh out of UNH – finds it in a second.
“Welcome to oyster farming,” Baker laughs, though his relief is palpable. “It’s very important that runs, and that’s why I don’t sleep at night.”
While the oysters are growing, they are filtering water for free. Then when they are full grown, Baker and Boeri can sell them to whole-salers or restaurants. The cleaner water is just an added perk.
This year, they are hoping to bring their first crop to market. Three years ago those oysters were tiny like the ones at this upweller. Boeri scoops up a dab on the end of his finger, the oysters are slightly larger than grains of sand.
“When we get it, it’s 1.5 millimeters, so it looks like pepper flakes. Everybody calls them pepper flakes,” says Baker.
Eyeballing the smudge of what’s called oyster “spat” or “seed oysters on his finger Boeri says, “that’s probably a couple of thousand oysters easy.”
Now after three years of constantly washing mud off the mollusks, and cleaning seaweed and pests out of the cages, and moving the oysters from cage to cage, these two hope to start making some money. It took somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 dollars’ for cages, “seed” oysters, to lease the water from the state, but once they hit full production – which is another couple of years away – they hope to gross more than $250,000 in sales each year.
Subtract the expenses, divide by two and Baker says, “we think we can make a good living doing this, but we’re probably not going to be retiring at age 50 either.”
Oyster farming is a lot like regular farming: hard work, repetitive, risk of bad weather and bad crops, but – when all goes right – totally rewarding.
And there are a lot of hopes pinned on this industry.
It takes about 30 days to slosh its way out to the ocean through Great Bay and Little Bay, this is known as the residency time for the water body.
“To filter [the water], within that amount of time, would be about 90 million adult oysters,” says Ray Konisky who works on oyster reef restoration for the Nature Conservancy, “so that’s a major target for restoring that amount of benefit to the system.”
The work the Nature Conservancy does has restored about 15 acres of oyster reefs in Great Bay. At 200,000 oysters an acre, it would take a lot of reef restoration to get to 90 million. But with their cage system, farms like Fat Dog shellfish can pack two and a half times as many mollusks into an acre.
Konisky has been crunching some numbers, and he figures if New Hampshire can get up above 100 acres of oyster farms, coupled with restoration and the remaining natural reefs, 90 million oysters is doable. Right now, there are twenty-five and half acres of farms.
Konisky says sometimes he has to pinch himself, because “we got a chance here, and this is part of the solution.”
Estuary Of Many Uses
The only problem: Oyster farmers are already running out of space in Little Bay.
Oyster farming can’t happen too close to marinas, mooring fields; it can’t overlap with spots where lobster pots are set, or where eelgrass is growing; Oysters can’t be farmed where it’s too muddy, too deep or too shallow.
“A lot of what we were doing when we were looking for a place to farm was going out with that yellow pole and poking the bottom,” Jay Baker explains out on Fat Dog’s barge. “We have poked the bottom of this bay for many, many days.”
In other words, it’s tricky to find a good spot.
A 2012 study estimated the theoretical max is between 16 and 31 new 3-acre oyster farms, or up to 93 new acres in cultivation. But even that is probably optimistic.
“I will tell you that there is probably no way we would ever see a full sixteen farms in the available space in Little Bay right now,” says Chris Nash who regulates shellfish farms with the DES.
He says prospective farmers who have been searching for new sites have been saying most of the good spots are all gone. “Maybe the depth’s not quite right, or the substrate is too soft or there’s a bunch of lobster traps that are always there, or there’s a mooring field or something like that,” he explains chuckling.
That means folks hoping to get closer to that magic 90-million-oyster number that would totally filter the Great Bay may need to think of another road map for how to get there. That could mean either a massive increase in the amount of work being done by non-profits to restore low-density oyster reefs, or giving oyster farmers more space.
Some aquaculturists are throwing around some pretty radical ideas on that front.
“If we’re being entirely honest, we don’t really love the eel grass because it’s eel-grass,” says Bob Rheault, the executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, “we love it because of the habitat value it provides.”
Rheault says something that many environmentalists would call blasphemy: maybe oyster cages should be allowed on top of eelgrass beds, the foundation of the estuary’s ecosystem.
“The shellfish gear [provides habitat value] better,” says Rheault, alluding to a study he completed that found more fish and other species clustered around his oyster cages than in an eelgrass bed. “We remove nitrogen, we stabilize the bottom, we provide habitat!” he exclaims.
Room to Grow?
One big restriction is that the Great Bay is currently closed to any aquaculture because it is a National Research Reserve. Whether to open the Great Bay to aquaculture hasn’t really been discussed in a serious way, though some officials at Fish and Game – which oversees the reserve – have indicated that it could be possible.
While some aqua-culturists might be fans of the idea, the environmental community is more cautious.
“We actually are focusing on restoration efforts in Great Bay,” says Konisky of the Nature Conservancy, “So that’s the game-plan in that system. That’s not to suggest that it might not be suitable for farming at some point down the road, or be a good place for that is well.”
So for the time being, oyster farming – and the incredible oyster density that it offers – has some space to grow, but not a whole lot. Just how big it gets will also depend on how many farmers can make it work.
Baker and Boeri, of Fat Dog Oysters, just finished giving a tour to someone who is interested in exporting their product to Asia. “It does sound exotic and lucrative doesn’t it!” says Baker, “So we’ll see how it goes!”
There are seven other farmers in New Hampshire, and just one of them makes a full-time living at it. But that may change. Other nearby states – Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts – have seen huge growth in oyster farming in recent decades. In tiny Rhode Island alone, it has ballooned into a $2 million dollar a year industry.