Learning the Ropes

Taking to Great Bay to farm glistening morsels for local raw bars.Consider the oyster – cold, briny succulence. The gray amorphous bodies of the bivalve mollusk arrive on your plate nicely chilled, their defensive shell levered apart revealing the inner treasure – still alive. Put the beautifully shaped shell up to your lips and let the body slide in and slip down, along with the oyster’s liqueur. With or without a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of mignonette, this is how a cultured oyster from the cold waters of New England should be enjoyed. Sure, there are fried oysters and oyster stew and Southerners will soon be preparing oyster stuffing for their turkeys, but the raw bar is the ultimate destiny for the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica.Will Carey, 32, is an oyster farmer. He pries open the determined shell of a market-ready oyster with a screwdriver on his boat anchored over his oyster farm. “It’s good, really good, but I would prefer to enjoy them in a restaurant where someone else has done the final work.” That’s not too much to ask, after all Carey has worked for the past three years to get that oyster to grow into a nice shape that looks good and contains a meaty morsel.It all started with an invitation from a friend who had just graduated from UNH with a master’s degree in marine biology. He had applied for permits from New Hampshire Fish and Game to operate an oyster farm in Great Bay and invited Carey and his wife Jocelyn to join him in the venture.I am not sure what part of this sounded like fun to the couple – Will had just finished rigging a Broadway show for flying actors across the stage using his rock-climbing talents. Up for the challenge, they decided to take the plunge, literally. Just before the operation got started, the friends left for Guam to pursue a professional opportunity. With the permitting in place, the Careys, having relocated from Brooklyn decided to go ahead with the plan.Now Will alone tends his “crop” lying four feet below the water line at low tide. He’s at it seven days a week, in good or foul weather, motoring a small lobster boat from his home in Newmarket to the oyster beds. All that is visible of his farm are perimeter buoy markers.”Farming” these shellfish is basically sowing seed oysters in fine mesh bags and tending them for three years until they are ready for market. Sounds easy enough, but the tending part is labor intensive. Carey admits it’s more work than he first envisioned. Each day in cold weather he dons a dry suit to get into the waist-deep water and walk the rows of bags that are rigged together with ropes he once used to climb rocks.Wading along he shakes bags one-by-one to give each oyster a bit more room to grow without being misshapen. Native oysters find a foothold a few weeks after being naturally fertilized, a matter of egg and sperm meeting randomly in the sea. Once attached they never move again, at least until victimized by starfish or a host of other predators who drill through their shell. That would be the problem if one had hopes to just cast seed oyster in the sea – there would be a lot of fatalities.To give each oyster its best chance to be savored at a raw bar, Carey has three gauges of mesh bags to transfer growing oysters. That means each bag is pulled up several times in the three-year growing cycle. Logan, his dog, watches as he hand sorts the crop for size- all host a variety of biomass – sea squirts or sponges, some are stuck together, a few are dead and tossed overboard, a couple are just plain ugly.There are 1,500 mesh bags to jockey. Not each and every day, but throughout the growing session Carey needs to be mindful of conditions under the sea. Bags become clogged with biomass and require power washing to ensure the oysters get access to the water – that’s the oyster’s job. Each one filters more than 40 gallons of water a day, and in the process algae and other products of eutrification are removed.It is the oyster’s ability to renew that may give Great Bay hope. Carey applied for and obtained a grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service last year and several wild oyster beds were planted to help re-establish a decimated population. A layer of broken shells was dumped first to give the seed oysters a foothold; otherwise they would suffocate in the mucky bottom. Officials say 100 more beds are needed.Back to the raw bar, there is an old saw that one should only eat oysters in months that end in R. Under modern conditions that is no longer true, but it is true that the colder conditions produce tastier bivalves. Oysters from the Gulf Coast grow larger more quickly, but are milder in flavor. Carey takes advantage of the winter season by setting aside cages of oysters for the winter markets. He says they go dormant during the cold months, but he keeps them under the sea for optimal taste. There are producers who harvest in the fall and chill the oysters in large refrigerated units. Not the best practice, claims Carey. He is willing to wade in 30-some-degree water to market a better product.Next spring Carey will start another cycle with 750,000 seed oysters no larger than a child’s fingernail. Final harvest in three years is significantly less in number, even with a seven-day-a-week schedule of shaking, transferring, cleaning, more cleaning and general farm maintenance. There must be joy in watching an oyster grow from seed to table. At your next raw bar visit, consider the oyster farmer. NH