A growing concern to New England's boutique farmers is increased competition from oyster farms to the south. Pictured: an oyster bed vista in McClellanville, SC. Image: Flickr/Doug DuCap Food and Travel
CHARLESTOWN, R.I. – Rain and sleet smack the surface of Ninigret Pond as oyster farmer Jules Opton-Himmel fumbles with a stalled outboard motor. Not much is going his way this morning.
He's under pressure to harvest on this mid-February day to make an on-time afternoon delivery to a local raw bar. On-board, he's trying to impress a top chef from one of Newport's most exclusive restaurants – and his pontoon boat is stuck in a field of slushy ice not even halfway out into the lagoon where he grows oysters.
"Everything going wrong – I'd say that's a pretty typical day," Opton-Himmel jokes, just moments before part of the outboard engine broke off, sinking into the icy water.
As New England's waters have become cleaner in recent decades, growers like Opton-Himmel have seeded the coast with oyster farms. As their efforts start to bear fruit, the ocean impacts of climate change may test the mettle of the burgeoning industry.
Boutique farmers, insatiable market
More than 350 oyster farmers now cultivate bottom leases in the shallow waters along the Northeastern seaboard, according to the Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center, up from handfuls 25 years ago. The rewards are great. With an insatiable half-shell market, gross profits are high and demand constant. But the challenges may be greater.
The Northeast's boutique oyster farmers must contend with the vagaries of New England weather. They must also deal with a host of challenges tied directly to the environment and potentially amplified by climate change, including warming waters, increasing ocean acidity and the spread of diseases that can decimate shellfish stocks.
Climate change poses important challenges to the industry's long-term viability. But to growers like Opton-Himmel, coping with the day-to-day quandaries of small business ownership and economic pressures of a crowded, premium market, the climate threat can feel abstract.
The same day that Opton-Himmel got stuck in the ice, oysterman Jim Arnoux, owner of Rhode Island's East Beach Farms, was across the lagoon dealing with a deer carcass frozen in the ice above his oysters. "You never know what you are going to get," he said. "Anything from random and chaotic to tedious dividing and sorting."
Thousand-year-old mounds of discarded oyster shells, called middens, that line the banks along parts of Maine's Damariscotta River attest to the productivity – and Native Americans' ancient appetite for – local oysters. Wild populations quickly declined as European settlers moved into the area. In the 1800s, a primitive aquaculture industry was born when harvesters started actively growing oysters on submerged plots, planting oyster larvae from remaining wild reefs.
In the early 1900s, at an industry peak, nearly 30,000 acres, roughly 30 percent of the entire bottom of Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay was leased out to oyster growers.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, "environmental changes on an epic scale" helped decimate the industry, said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, and industry group. One of the pioneers of New England's oyster renaissance, Rheault founded Narragansett's Moonstone Oysters in 1986.
Untreated sewage and industrial waste flowed freely into the nation's waterways. Raw oysters were implicated in massive outbreaks of cholera and typhus. Whole harvests from Long Island to New England were smothered under tons of sand during the Great Hurricane of 1938. In the 1950's, shellfish parasites wiped out huge swaths of oysters in the mid-Atlantic.
Push to clean coastal waters
A push by federal and state agencies starting in the 1970s to clean up coastal waters helped elevate oysters from "something that was going to make you sick to something that was quite safe," Rheault said.