Cleaner waters and advances in aquaculture technique made oyster growing a viable business. Aquaculture of the past relied on taking oyster larvae from wild reefs. Today, most commercial oysters in New England come from hatchery-reared larvae, or seed, raised in shallow tanks called upwellers. Natural oyster populations remain at just 1 percent of historical levels.
The allure of the upscale raw bar or half-shell market – on which single oysters can retail for as much as $3 a pop – has enticed many a first-time oyster farmer.
Opton-Himmel is one such farmer. He started his operation, Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, in 2009 with a few cages on a 1,000 square-foot plot. The son of an artist, he grew up in Manhattan's Greenwich Village and as a child took frequent trips to the Adirondack Mountains. "I've always loved being outdoors," he said.
A graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, Opton-Himmel worked for the Nature Conservancy on shellfish restoration projects. Rhode Island's streamlined permitting process and clean water caught his eye.
He now farms three acres in Ninigret Pond, or about one million oysters. He hopes to get about 85 cents per oyster – except that, in a very good year, only 30 percent of his oysters will survive.
New England 'terroir'
While small, Walrus and Carpenter is average by New England oyster farm standards, where most growers run boutique farms that rely on name-branded marketing and distinctive flavors based on geographic location – what the wine industry would call "terroir."
While Opton-Himmel stands alone, other small growers, such as Arnoux have formed cooperatives with nearby farms to help increase their reach by sharing the expense of packing facilities, marketing and sales.
Rheault says a growing concern to New England's boutique farmers is increased competition from oyster farms to the south. "The industries in Virginia and Maryland are just taking off – we don't even know how big it is," he said.
In 2009, seeking to attract investment and rebuild its oyster industry, Maryland changed its leasing laws and made it easier for new oyster farmers to get a plot. "We've seen over 100 applications for new leases," said Don Webster, an aquaculture specialist with the University of Maryland Extension and chairman of the Maryland Aquaculture Coordinating Council.
Three years to market
Oysters grow faster in the slightly warmer waters of the Mid-Atlantic. In some parts of Virginia, oysters may be ready to harvest in a year. Farther north it may take two to three years to grow oysters that big.
Oyster connoisseurs say slow-growing, cold-water varieties taste better, and New England farmers certainly charge a premium price for their product. Yet Rheault and others fear that expansion in southern states could drive down prices for everybody, making oyster farming a hard go in New England.
Climate change, in the form of warmer waters and increasing ocean acidity, may exacerbate economic uncertainties.
"As a grower, shellfish disease is the biggest thing that I worry about. And that's closely linked to climate change," said Opton-Himmel.
MSX and Dermo are the most devastating oyster diseases on the East Coast. MSX, caused by a parasite, can kill up to 90 percent of an oyster crop when it strikes. Both are warm water diseases. A cold, hard winter generally knocks it back, but when winters are mild, oysters can succumb, said Dale Leavitt, an aquaculture specialist at Roger William University in Rhode Island. "We anticipate a higher incidence of these diseases as the environment warms," he said. Scientists have developed disease-resistant lines, though farmers typically cross a number of lines, some resistant, some not, for best production.