Oystering, New England Style

This is the first of two posts devoted to fantastic oyster farmers. Stay tuned for the next post in August, when we head to the Chesapeake Bay to see some Southern oysters. A couple of Local Pickins staffers recently took a trip to picturesque Duxbury, MA to catch up with the team at Island Creek Oysters (ICO) and learn about their operation. Boy did we learn a lot! We could totally geek out over their scientific operation and all the cool stuff we learned, but we’ll try to keep it to the highlights.

Imagine if you worked here. Beautiful!

Image

We met up with Annie, who was kind enough to set up this experience, and Elyce. We have taken to calling Elyce the queen of all things hatchery. She has a big job…of raising millions of oyster babies until they move to their permanent home in the bay. While they do buy babies from other hatcheries, ICO currently manages the spawning and growth of up to 20% of all the oysters they sell.

Our tour began in a room full of…algae!  That’s right, all those beakers and barrels you see are full of seven different types of algae that will become food for the baby oysters. Elyce went into detail about the process and that each oyster life stage, before going out into the bay, requires a specific ratio of protein, carbohydrates and lipids. Who knew? Certainly not us. Needless to say, we were quite impressed with the science behind the operation. At ICO the hatchery is inside because the babies need 78 degrees in order to thrive. It’s just too cold in this part of New England for the bay to get those temperatures so the hatchery is indoors, hence the need to provide the food.

ICOAlgae

After an eye-opening start, we could not wait to see more. So we headed into the nursery itself. Here are some oysters, and clams, lying around waiting to spawn.

OystersinTanks

Did you know oysters are sequential hermaphrodites? They choose if they want to become male or female. At ICO the ratio is typically 6:1 males to females. It’s a lot harder for the bi-valves to create eggs, therefore harder to be female; therefore they have a lot more males.

 OysterBabiesElyce carefully manages the spawning, which can take from start to finish about six hours. Once the females start “clapping” and the males open wide the spawn is on. There can be up to 20,000 eggs in one session! That’s a lot of oyster babies to nurture. The oysters are fed the carefully grown algae six times a day, calcium is added so they will start growing their shells and they are moved through different sieve sizes based on their growth. Look at these babies. They are 2-3 months old.

These babies are now living outside, but still under careful watch by Elyce. It’s tough to see, but there are lots of little oysters clinging to the side of the holding tank. Then it is time to strike out on their own and live out their adult lives in the bay

OysterBabiesOutside

ICO grows millions of their own oysters but there are 30 additional oyster growers in Duxbury Bay, many of whom sell their oysters to ICO.  That’s a lot of shucking oysters.

We then hopped on a boat to the “oysterplex”. After dredging up the oysters the ICO staff heads here for sorting and bagging.

Oysterplex

OysterSorting

We saw three sizes. The smallest are about 18 months old; the middle are about 24 months old; and the largest size is 3-4 years old. In Massachusetts oysters must be three inches long to purchase, but other states have different requirements so ICO is able to harvest the smaller oysters to sell around the country.

OysterSizes

Look at these beauties. These are destined for famous chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se.

OystersPerSe

Some oysters will be put back, mostly because they are slightly deformed. If an oyster would not look good on a bed of ice on a plate, they are put back. And according to ICO staffer Will, they will usually self-correct and come out better oysters because of the extra time. Nature is amazing.

From Duxbury the oysters are shipped out and will appear in fish shops and on restaurant menus around the United States, in Canada and beyond.

Hard working ICO Staff: Will Heward, Elyce Whatley, Annie McNamara, Hadley Burnham, Maya Bennett, Samantha Bennett
Hard working ICO Staff: Will Heward, Elyce Whatley, Annie McNamara, Hadley Burnham, Maya Bennett, Samantha Bennett

Thanks to Annie, Elyce and everyone at Island Creek Oysters for hosting us. It was a special way to spend our day and an incredible learning experience.

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