Schlafly Stout & Oyster Fest

“Ready! Set! Shuck!” the three teams start the contest with a hushed crowd. First the shucker pops open half a dozen oysters, then the second slurps them down passing the baton to the third who needs to chug a beer in order to complete the race. The weekend comes crashing to a bittersweet end in this annual grand finale of the 18th annual Schlafly Stout and Oyster Fest.

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Just days ago the relentless team at the Schlafly beer company in St. Louis was gearing up for one of their favorite weekends of the year. Oysters are flown in from the west coast, trucked in from the east, and arrive fresh and delicious for St. Louisans to chow down on with the always amazing Schlafly beer. Shuckers from up and down the eastern seaboard, Washington, California and Colorado arrive in droves with their shucking knives brandished ready to show the Midwest what their oysters are all about.

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15 stouts are prepared for the festival, and they range from the rich Irish Extra Stout to lighter varieties like the Oyster Stout. Clever flavor profiles burst through as you sample each beer, the Toasted Coconut to the Mexican hot chocolate, and it is hard to choose a favorite. That’s why it pays to know a few locals, one of whom blended the legendary coffee stout with the vanilla milk stout to make a delicious concoction that made me stop worrying about a favorite. Among the stouts there were many other kegs being tapped from Kölsch to an American Pale Ale or a Black IPA.

Even with all the delicious beer, the event this weekend focused on the shellfish and included fried oysters, oysters Rockefeller, and clam chowder. Did I mention the Raw Oysters?! Over 70 thousand of those raw oysters were split in half and fed to the seafood starved people of Missouri over the course of the three day festival. The shuckers cracked open shell after shell of the country’s finest oysters including the Sunset Beaches out of Washington, Connecticut Blue Points, and Rhode Island’s Quonset Points.  People strolled down the clam shack-style raw bar filled with juicy shells waiting to be slurped down with a little bit of cocktail sauce, or straight up naked (like the pros).

Thursday and Friday nights were busy as the crowds were anxious to get their fix of the coveted oysters. Saturday had a chill in the air which makes for the best oyster eating conditions, and steadily throughout the day people were streaming through the tents where the event was held, laughing with the shuckers, and chucking back oyster after oyster as the horns played The Beatles “Come Together”. It may seem weird to have an oyster festival in St Louis, but not when you see the symmetry of both coasts serving their own oysters, bragging about them while bashing the other, and how everybody comes together.

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Alongside all the amazing food and beer were the funky jazzy bluesy bands that complete the party every year. This year’s lineup was sure to have you dancing with bands like Hazard To Ya Booty, and the Funky Butt Brass Band warming up the tent on Friday night. Saturday the music kicked off at 11, and didn’t stop until late into the night. The local favorites Boudin Brothers Zydeco Band set the tone with some up-beat dancing music played with a Cajun flair. Then to finish off the evening the solid sound of Big Sam’s Funky Nation blew the doors off the tent with the incredible drum rhythms and bass bumping behind the brass gumbo-yaya, and smooth guitar licks.

 

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All in all the weekend was an incredible experience, in an incredible city, and well worth the harsh plane ride home on Sunday. Our hosts at the Schlafly Tap Room treated us like royalty, and poured us beer till it came out our ears (in a good way)! Seeing the substantial growth spurt this festival went through in the last couple of years I can’t wait to go back next year and see what those folks at Schlafly are up to. Must be something in the beer they drink…

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Dirty Tech

“Oyster farming aint easy” so goes the old quote

Half the time you’re sweating and dirty, the rest you’re fixing the boat

When you’re down in the bilge on a bright summer day

Just call your hydraulic company they’ll show you the way

When the problem is solved you feel like a million bucks

Then you get back to the dock and realize you locked your keys in your truck.

 

It seems that the term inventor is saved for people like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Johannes Gutenberg of years passed, and Steve Jobs or Elon Musk of modern times. They are the heavy hitters, and to their credit the ideas they hatched have profound effects on human society. They gained historical recognition by thinking outside the box and molding the world we live in today, but there are many other humans over the course of history that have also fit the role of inventor.

An old English proverb states “necessity is the mother of invention”, and more often than not people have a problem, see their way past it, and consequently become an inventor. Jethro Tull, back before aqualung, was an English fellow that m odernized agriculture in the early 1700’s by using the original horse power and his custom seed drill to sow seeds into the fields, and later a horse drawn hoe to plow them. He was plugged into his farming, and came up with a couple of great inventions to make the job of farming easier. We are just following the same course, using what is in front of us, and figuring out what else is needed to make farming easier.

It would be hard to get Elon Musk on the phone to ask for his solution to our oyster farming issues, and his head is in a different world anyway ,haha, so I would rather use our inventions, and our inventor friends to cater to our shellfish needs.

Fortunately we have a great contact list of modern day inventors, although they don’t always go by that tittle. Ole’ Uncle Gary is the first fella that comes to mind because he is constantly helping us build our boat, and he would be the first person to tell you that building a boat is a never ending process. With thirty plus years of experience building elevators, from New York City to Pennslytucky currently residing in the Ocean State, Uncle Gary has an engine073ering expertise that could not be learned in school. Rather his engineering intuition is ingrained in his brain from the constant tinkering and beer drinkering. When we first bought the FV Tom Royal Uncle Gary helped with the initial overhaul which included building a base for the crane to sit on that would keep it stable while we were working on the ocean. He has jumped in to brace davits from our ever increasing loads, beef up fiberglass bulwarks with steel, and many other modifications that make life safer and better. Everything is custom every idea is original all metal work is guaranteed, and all trades are mastered, Uncle Gary is one hell of an inventor both on and off the boat.

Another inventive company that we woweldingrk closely with is Pine Hill Equipment. A company with three generations of the Haines family working under one roof that specialize in marine and industrial hydraulics. They know firsthand that every boat is different because over the years they have installed and serviced the guts of thousands of fishing boats in the New England area. The guts of the boat that I’m referring to are the hydraulic systems that allow the watermen to lift, move, pull, steer, pump water, and do any heavy lifting on a boat.  They helped retrofit our boat by installing a very custom, very beefy system that runs the pot hauler, the star wheels, all the equipment we use for oyster and mussel farming, steering systems, two pacer pumps, two power washer pumps, and our prized “righteous” crane. After a year of operating the boat they came in again and added all the bells and whistlesimg_1729 including a remote control to run the crane from anywhere on the deck of the boat. PHE has a broad clientele ranging from the new Deepwater Wind boat which is a state of the art tender boat for the new Wind Farm off of Block Island to a multitude of fishing boats in New Bedford and many other ports in the northeast. The Haines family doesn’t stop when the working day is done though, they are always working on new projects; rebuilding pickup trucks, personal boats, mega lawn mowers, and tractors for the Westport fair. They are very interesting people to know and work with, and are always available to trouble shoot whatever problem pops up.

Hyland Equipment is another company/person that comes to mind when thinking about inventors because Richard (the founder) is always stopping by our shop to tinker with the power washers, and various other projects. When in Vietnam he kept the engines and hydraulics running on the boats as they ran up and down the river and through the deltas, and after the war he worked on oil rigs in Alaska. He has an interesting story, and an interest in inventing. He sized and plumbed all the power washers for our tumbling operation. He has designed, built and modified several gigantic washer machines to clean dirty oyster trays, and wharf tubs. Currently he is working on a seawater filtration system for our main building at AMH that will allow us to use seawater for processing, and stop the wasteful act of using freshwater.

Joe Franklin from QE supply in New Zealand is a great creative mind to have in our corner because he is a world expert in continuous loop mussel farming. He has seen the progression of the industry first hand in his home land so he knows what is takes to be successful  “Mate, we put a man on the moon” says Joe in his kiwi accent “your only limited by what you don’t try!”

Whether its machine shops, hydraulic companies, elevator guys, rope guys or Captain Call himself there is a need for creative people in the field of shellfish farming, and as the industry grows so will the need for inventive solutions. An example of this is the New Zealand aquaculture industry that has developed an automated style of growing that maximizes productivity. It took time, sequential steps, trial and error, many different types of creative people working on different parts of the whole, and oh yeah, the $$$ incentive. Back at home the dollar incentive started with the fishing industry down in Pt. Judith, and now some of those creative people are transferring their attention and abilities over to the growing field of aquaculture. In order to be successful in this new seafood industry you need to be hardworking and innovative with a Rolodex of contacts that will help you progress to the next level.

02-02-16-sunrise-righteousSo while it is great to be living in the modern world, where booming tech industries are pushing the envelope with drones, clones, electric cars, and phones. Out on the oyster farm there is still a need for inventions that can’t be bought off Amazon, and custom fabrications that require talented individuals to design and construct. While Mr. Musk is off exploring Mars we will be exploring the details of our shellfish farming operation making life better one invention at a time, and preparing for the next shellfish farm, on the oceans of Jupiter….

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Not Too Stressed

Stress is one of those double edged swords that can push somebody to max performance while breaking them down at the same time. Ultimately it has negative impacts on most things that it encounters, and shellfish are no different. If exposed to stressful conditions for long enough periods of time shellfish will crumble under the weight of their world, so to say.

Just recently we harvested the last Blue Gold Mussels from the Newport site and had mixed results. We noticed an increased mortality from our observations two months prior and the only explanation was environmental stress from warming water. This is a difficult predicament for us farmers trying to bring a year round crop to market; what happens when they go out of season? Can we change the environmental conditions to be more conducive to M. edulis survival i..e. sink them to where the sea water is still cooler in the summer months?

Checking for Environmental Stress on Shellfish

Offshore Blue Gold mussel line.

This seems to be my answer to all the mussels’ problems, but it makes the actual farming part a bit more difficult. It requires the perfect amount of flotation, which is dependent on the weight of the long lines, which fluctuates with the growth of the shellfish and fouling that is constantly changing making this a hard technique to master; let alone do on a grand scale. Then when all is said and done your farm is completely submerged and you need to find it and haul it to the surface in order to work on it.

Mussels do great in the late fall through the mid-summer, however, when the water gets around 70 F the larger ones lose byssal strength and start falling off the lines. It is biology and there is still much to learn. Different shellfish species have their ideal temperatures for growth, spawning, and dormancy. Figuring out these cycles is important to husbandry, which is what raising the best crops is all about.

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FV Thomas D Royal

For example, we lost a large number of oysters two years ago because we were bringing return oysters (small ones that we cull out from the markets) out to the farm in sub-zero weather conditions. These oysters were already stressed from being harvested, then we shocked them with the freezing air temps and put them into water with no available algae for them to feed on and recoup. They got stressed out and died and then we got stressed out because they died.

People may have better mechanisms for dealing with stress. I know some people that thrive on stress and use it as an alternative energy source. Personally when the shit hits the fan at work, I tend to skip lunch and work without breaking until the problem is solved, for better or for worse. This has a wearing effect on the body, but I can manage without breaking down for a period of time. Eventually, people will break down if stressed for a long enough time, as we all know, but people have endured a lot more than mussel farming and made it through; think about Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica and being stuck on the ice while your ship gets crushed in front of your eyes! That would be stressful to say the least.

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Hauling Sets Full of Oysters.

Due to the heavy lifting requirements and the constant motion of the ocean we put a lot of stress on the FV Thomas D Royal and all the equipment on board. It is a safety concern, so we are constantly thinking of ways to reinforce pressure points and steadily switching out old lines in anticipation of that one time when the stress is too much to bear and something snaps when you really don’t want it to.

In addition, the year round daily use takes a toll on the mechanical devices like: pot haulers, star wheel motors, power washers, all sorts of pumps, diesel engines, and assorted parts, crane parts, tumbler machines, mussel harvesting equipment… pretty much everything we use will be put under stress, and succumb to its fate.  So sometimes being a shellfish farmer has nothing to do with the shellfish whatsoever, but it is about being a good mechanic and fixing your equipment.

Rigging out the TD Royal for Aquaculture

Rigging for Aquaculture.

As you can see stress plays a major role in the daily life out at Salt Water Farms, and it is not only the farmers that bear its burden; although it eventually trickles down to them. Everything working in harmony makes a beautiful symphony, and there are many days when this is the reality. There are also days of Discordia, when it all falls down like dominoes and fixing the problem can take the rest of the day, or longer. Never a dull moment and never an easy ride.  Farmers have to be multifaceted multitasking maniacal monkey wrenches in order to be successful.

~ Mason Silkes

 

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Rolled and Tumbled ~ by Mason Silkes

The summer blues are upon us once again, and tumble tumble tumble we must. After planting out a record number of oysters this season we have little time to catch our breath before it is time to dive back in and tend to our crops. So as August brings with it the hottest weather we have seen all year, it also shifts us into fifth gear on the tumblers.

Heading out to tumble oysters at sunrise.

Heading out early ~photo credit Adam Silkes

With a strangely cold spring that held water temperatures along with growth rates aggravatingly low everything was pushed back. Our returned oysters were not showing their usual growth until June, and we were left high and dry without many market oysters through the springtime. This hurt us, but as the temps started to rise, the marine flora bloomed, the oysters filtered, the shells grew, the meats fattened the farmers smiled. Now we are bringing in palmed sized oysters with deep cups, and are hearing the praise from all the markets we serve.

Eider ducks picked our mussel ropes clean.

Mussel line picked clean by Eider ducks in 2014 ~photo credit Jack Moore

Although tragedy is more interesting than success, I feel it important to inform you that our mussel program finally succeeded in a steady crop of blue gold mussels through the summer. This was accomplished after years of getting snuffed out by ducks, weather, regulations, inexperience, and ducks. Did I mention eider ducks? Now that the ball is rolling we hope to steer our course the right direction, build off of our current momentum, and make farm raised Rhode Island mussels more plentiful than the boutique crop we are currently producing. It might be a concern that moving from a boutique crop to larger quantities will diminish the excellence of Blue Gold Mussels, but I have no fear that the quality will suffer. I believe that with more volume of mussels the quality will increase because more attention and time will be invested by the people at American Mussel who thrive on a steady supply of high grade mussels. Next year we hope to figure out the logistics of bringing a year round crop to market, and continue to improve our operations from there.

Mason drops a set of oysters in the tumbler.

Mason and the oyster tumbler ~ photo credit Jane Bugbee

On the oyster front it is the time to grind, and grind we must. With our new and improved (from last year) dual tumbler set up on the back of the FV Thomas D Royal we are set up to rip through our gear faster than ever. This means that we are tumbling the 2016 planted oysters, tumbling the returned oysters, and tumbling the stuff we are about to harvest (making it easier for the shore side harvesting crew). Improved efficiency of operations is always our goal, and working smarter not harder is our mantra. One example of this is changing the angle of the power washer nozzle by pointing it down, which keeps the large majority of the oysters in the cages as they go through the cleaning process, and allows us to move much faster. Prior to this we were losing 10-20 oysters from each set that would get tumbled, needing to gather them up off the deck, and jam them back in the trays. We realized the effect of losing that many oysters each day, and were looking at changing the whole design of the trays which would mean a lot of work and money. This relatively small change has saved us time, money, and oysters! Repeat after me in a slow chant “work smarter not harder. Work smarter not harder…”

Mussel seed covers a market buoy on our longline.

Mussel seed covers a yellow marker buoy ~photo credit Paula Quigley

I am consistently awestruck by the marine biology aspect of oyster farming; for example how do the mussels colonize so effectively on our oyster gear in a matter of 6 weeks? Why do the mussel larvae choose certain longlines to COVER in seed, and leave some without any mussels at all? It seems to me there is such a randomness to nature but I know it is heavily influenced by environmental conditions, like tides and currents. Nevertheless we are in a highly productive area of Narragansett Bay, and all the thriving organisms mean that it is a great place to grow our target species with plenty of food, and clean water. So we work on tumbling, getting our floating seed bags transferred to regular sets before the winter, getting all the long lines floated to the surface before the winter, and we continue to harvest daily to bring Quonset Point, Beavertail, and Umami Oysters to a market near you.

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The Beaver Tail oyster ~photo credit Paula Quigley

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From DC to NYC RI Oysters are Turning Heads

The last couple of days in Washington DC were completely different than my day to day work life; it gave me an alternative perspective on politics in the USA, and helped me realize how important the people’s voices are when put to the proper audience.

Senator Whitehouse enjoying the Quonset Point oysters

Senator Whitehouse enjoying the Quonset Point oysters

The trip to DC was sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental NGO, lobbying for support of the North East Regional Ocean Plan which aims to map out the federal waters of the United Sates, up to 200 miles from shore. Our role in this group of stake holders including; wind farms, shipping companies, sailors, and fishermen, was promoters of offshore aquaculture. It was exciting to be with this group, and to be part of the conversation about ocean planning at such a high level of government.

Left to right: Greg Silkes, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, Mason Silkes ~ Talking aquaculture in DC

Left to right: Greg Silkes, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, Mason Silkes

Walking on the “Hill”, and meeting with Rhode Island’s senators and congressmen was great because of the voices of support we heard in every office both for the ocean plan, and aquaculture as a part of it. Our representatives in Washington were more than happy to meet with us, and took time out of their busy schedules to chat about this plan, and listen to our opinions on the matter. This was intriguing to me because I was always of the mind that politics in DC moved like molasses, nobody cared about the little guy, and your voice would not be heard when you spoke. Not true. It is a slow moving train, but there are thousands of issues that are being hashed out in the marble halls of the capitol building, and the people voting are removed from the who, what, where and why of the matter. This, I learned, is the most important reason to be down there representing yourself and your industry. Or more simply put by Beth Casoni from MA Lobstermen’s Association “if you’re not at the table you’re on the plate.”

RI Oysters shucked at the White House

Quonset Points at the White House

Sometimes the best time to talk about the politics is at an evening reception with a few beers in you and some of your home grown oysters on the plate. I think the Quonset Points were a real hit at Tuesday night’s soiree in the capitol building, and proved that aquaculture is a delicious industry that needs to be supported/promoted at a federal level. A huge thanks to the folks at the Ocean Conservancy for organizing the fly in, all the meetings, and any other detail that the stakeholders didn’t even need to think about.

On another note this coming Thursday our oysters will be representing our company again at the annual Billion Oyster Party in Brooklyn, New York. This event is a fundraiser for a project aiming to restore New York Harbor’s historic oyster population with the help of local school kids. The oysters in the harbor are strictly used to filter the water and create habitat for other marine organisms, not human consumption. The scale is increasing with each year, and now teachers from any school in NYC can adopt the curriculum for their own classroom. The idea is to connect kids with the oyster heritage of the area, and engage them with real life lessons while they accomplish the goal of repopulating the harbor with oysters.

Billion Oyster Project students

Billion Oyster Project Schools and Citizen Science in Action

The event is also increasing in scale each year, and this year will host over 40 oyster farms from around the country to serve their finest products and have a lot of fun doing it. Salt Water Farms is happy to have been there the past couple years and we look forward to this event each coming year.  The BOP will continue to grow until the shores of Manhattan are covered in oyster reefs, and the water is as clean as when Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed through!

~ Mason Silkes

 

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Staking our Claim in the Bewildering World of Health Food

So here it goes… Salt Water Farms’ Oysters and Mussels are Free Range, Non GMO, organic, native, all natural, Wild Caught, Farm Raised, Gluten Free, Omega 3, Superfood, Sustainable, Fair Trade, and taste damn good! Bear with me and I’ll explain my certification process.

East Passage Farm Site

Our East Passage Farm

Free Range: Our shellfish farm is currently the largest in our small state, and yes our oysters are grown in trays at our farm site, but otherwise they would drift away with the tide. What makes our oysters free range is the available water they have to graze upon and the low densities throughout the entire farm. This allows for accelerated growth of many organisms, so our job is to make sure our oyster trays are free of bio fouling, and round the shells up when it’s time to harvest.

Oyster Seed from Long Island, NY

Oyster Seed from Fishers Island Oyster Farm

Non GMO: Our oyster seed are hatched by Fishers Island Oyster Farm and come from a brood-stock that Steve Malinowski has carefully selected over the 30 years he has been growing oysters on this secluded island off the northern tip of Long Island, NY. Our mussel seed is wild caught spat whose genetics have been in Narragansett Bay since before it was known as Narragansett Bay.

Removing Bio Fouling with Seawater

Adam and Rob Remove Bio Fouling with Seawater

Organic: There are no chemical fertilizers used in our farming techniques from seeding to shipping. No antibiotics, no growth hormones, no pesticides, no herbicides….. Pretty much two ingredients; oysters, and seawater, then we use seawater pressure washers to clear fouling (or weeds) and that’s that, organic by my book.

Native or Local: We are growing naturally occurring species in their natural environment therefore they are native. Both of these words are relative to where you are, but these mollusks are sure as hell local to me and anybody else in the north east.

Native Mussel Seed

Native, Wild Mussel Seed

Wild Caught and Farm Raised: The mussels we grow are collected annually from spat collecting lines set out on our oyster farm, therefore they are wild caught. Our mussel farming is more like a ranching style of the old west, minus the tumbleweeds and cowboys. We do however catch the wild ones, tame and brand them, corral them into our other farm location, and raise them to market size.

Gluten Free: Shellfish are a lean clean protein. No wheat, no gluten, no worries!

Omega 3 Superfood: This is one of my favorite claims to make because it’s really the greatest part about shellfish. They are an amazing protein source for the relative calories; contain the beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids that help with all ailments and all the trace minerals that you can’t even find a pill for: phosphorus, calcium, potassium, zinc, iron, magnesium, B12, B6. So next time you are searching for a food with a little more substance, skip the health food store and go to the oyster bar.

Sustainable: A lot can be said about this one. In fact, the last article I wrote was all about it. Shellfish farming has a bright future and is sustainable sustainable sustainable!

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Mason’s office

Fair Trade: As a farmer of Quonset Point Oysters, Beaver Tails Oysters, Umami Oysters, Newport Cup Oysters, and Blue Gold Mussels I can assure you that we are not taken advantage of or enslaved by a multinational corporation to a life of endless toil.

The taste test you will have to perform for yourself!

~Mason Silkes

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Flying Drones used to Scare Nuisance Ducks away from Mussel Farm

Setting out the Mussel Seed Collection Rope

Setting out Mussel Seed Collection Rope ~ Photo credit: Adam Silkes

2016 has been a busy year so far! With all the gear work squared away, and the winter dwindling away it is time to hit the water again, and prepare the farms for the spring. That restless feeling when the mercury hits 60 degrees, the clocks shift, the southwest winds combat the northerly breezes and eventually beat them out. Spring is in the air!

In our ever present war against the eider ducks we are gaining ground. This winter we planted mussels that were not decimated completely. We experimented with a few different tactics around the New Year that helped us understand a little more about our enemy, and plan for their behaviors.  Our successful endeavor was out in front of Newport where the water is about 70 feet deep; we were able to plant out the mussel socks, and then float the entire longline 40 feet below the surface. As of yet it looks as though the ducks have not found, or are not willing to dive that deep for a meal.

Mussel seed rope picked clean by Eider ducks

Mussel Rope Picked Clean by Eider Ducks ~ Photo credit: Jack Moore

At the inshore site the New Year planting was picked clean off the ropes by the flock of eiders that reside there in the winter. We are still pushing in a classic case of man v nature and planted four remaining lines just last week under the watchful eyes of ole’ king eider. It may have been hasty, but we are thinking that the warm temperatures will drive these vagabonds north, and our innocent mussels will have time to mature before the summer.

 

Riddle:

What lives in the water, but can fly with the birds

Cries like an eagle sometimes, but can change what you’ve heard

It is powered by the sun, the pyrotechnics cause alarm

Not a companion of the ducks, but it lives on our farm?

 

A pair of eider ducks

A Pair of Eider Ducks ~ Photo credit: istockphoto.com

The answer is an un-invented, computer aged, fancy shmancy scarecrow! A meeting of the minds up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts discussed robotics and aquaculture and the different applications of automated systems that could make marine farming easier. Out of that there is a grant proposal that we are involved with to create a kayak type of drone that stays at the farm to keep the ducks from landing, and feeding on our crops. It is very exciting to have such experts working on a problem for us. The team consists of duck specialists, MIT engineers, WHOI scientists, and us…. All-star squad?!?!?

Now back to the spring. The water temperatures in the bay are still in the lower 40s meaning there is not a lot of new oyster growth yet. We are planning on hauling the Thomas D. Royal out of the water and doing some yearly maintenance, and upgrades. The upgrades will pertain to the hydraulic and electrical systems making the boat more efficient, and functional. After the short haul, only two weeks, it will be on to planting oysters again, tumbling oysters with our new and improved tumblers, and all the other little things that make a farm run smoothly (if that’s possible!).

The Umami Oyster

The Umami Oyster ~ Photo Credit: Paula Quigley

In the mean time grab some of our Umami oysters; it’s the only cocktail oyster in RI! Although I am not a foodie, pair it with some Champagne or another bubbly wine; have a small sip of bubbly, eat the oyster, chew, swish it all around then, gulp it down. Or, another recipe from one of the more creative chefs I know, Jorge,  for oyster ceviche; shuck a dozen into a bowl, squeeze two limes on top of them, little bit of jalapeno (to taste), chopped red onion and cilantro. Let it all sit for 10 minutes, and serve back on the half shell.

~ Mason Silkes

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The Winter Works of SWF 2016

I am so humble
When my alarm clock rings I grumble.
Then I stumble outside to hear the diesel rumble.
I am so in tune
When the bay warms up marine-flora bloom
Then I assume the oysters need to be tumbled soon.

Whale Sighting in Narragansett Bay

Whale Sighting in Narragansett Bay

Oyster farming can keep you humble. One will grow weary in the dog days of summer, and dreary in the freezing cold of winter, crazy in the rush of springtime, and lazy after the reaping in the fall. Each season has a unique elegance; it is melodic to wake up before sunrise, and cruise out to the farm at 8 knots wearing 6 layers of clothing splicing rope with frozen fingers. As I watch my breath and wait for the caffeine to kick in I enjoy the solitude of Narragansett Bay in the winter time. Our only companions are curious harbor seals popping their heads up to say “good morning”, and the occasional whale steadily swimming to a destination undisclosed.

the Beaver Tails Oyster!

The Beaver Tails Oyster!

Our farm is designed to produce a year round crop of Quonsets, Beaver Tails, and Umami’s and in the winter time, if we are caught up on our maintenance, harvesting is as easy as the weather permits. This leaves us plenty of time, if not motivation, for projects and planning for the next year.

 

This winter we are building plastic mesh cages to accommodate smaller seed for a second planting in mid-summer. That time of year the water is full of plankton, algae, and other high quality food sources for the juvenile oysters to graze on. Our goal is to grow the small stuff rapidly, be able to transfer them to larger cages, and thin them out before next winter.

Mesh Oyster Cages

Mesh Oyster Cages

When it comes to farming it is important to diversify your seed source. It is a different kind of crop insurance so in case something happens to one strain of seed it will not devastate your entire farm. We have had incredible success with Fishers Island seed in years past, most likely due to Steve Malinowski’s 30 + years of experience spawning and growing oysters. He is an oyster guru! We also use seed from the coastal ponds of RI, and are planning on getting a shipment from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. All of these sources combined will ensure that we increase the capacity of our oyster farm each passing year.

The quality of market oysters is still our primary goal, and this year’s crop is looking like our best to date. Due to the steady efforts of the FV Thomas Royal and its crew, our oysters have the desirable deep cup, solid hinge, and still that rustic color that identifies them as RI’s #1 oyster. I have personally tested thousands of these oysters, and insist they are top shelf on an international level!

Early Summer on Narragansett Bay

Early Summer on Narragansett Bay

Thinking about and planning for the spring/summer season is bittersweet; on one hand there is so much work to do it can be overwhelming, but on the other hand we have daylight and warm weather so working is a lot easier. Being outside really makes you appreciate the four seasons for each of their virtues and tune into the natural environment that plays a huge role in the culture of oysters.

~ Mason Silkes 2016

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Oysters Out to Sea

The Newport Cups OYster

The Newport Cups Oyster

As the tempest rages, the oysters tremble in their cages unscathed by the wrath of the sea. For the storms here last longer, so the shells here get stronger from exposure without any mercy.

70 feet below the sea, and miles from Brenton Reef, is another world for growing these creatures.  The oysters feed so frantic, on the water of the Atlantic giving them a bold body, deep cup, and oceanic features.

When the storms finally cease, we ride a fair breeze from the sheltered bay to the waves of the ocean.  The oysters we pick up, they are called the Newport Cups grown with ceaseless and fiery devotion.

It’s hard to give them a description, though you may read the shells inscription through the ages it tells a tale.  So hard, so salty, so daring, reminders of the sea faring men who enjoyed oysters and ale.

Newport may have changed, though the spirit still remains a town rich in maritime culture.  Some things stay true, like the gentle ocean’s hue and the sea is filled with hidden treasure.

~Mason Silkes

resizedNewport Cups® Oysters

41N 71W   The Newport Cups® are a deep cupped oyster with a clean sharp brine that has a distinguished light finish like that of an Italian Prosecco.  After a primary burst of salt the sweet belly releases its sugars, followed by a delicate briny aftertaste giving these oysters the quintessential taste of the Ocean State.  With nothing blocking all the force of the Atlantic Ocean the Newport Cups® are a rare treat for their exposure to the elements that gives the oysters their clean flavor, and the rustic shells a hardy shine.

Make this oyster your holiday tradition!  A limited harvest will be available here for your Thanksgiving celebration.  Taste the deep water difference.  Only 9,000 oysters are available this Season.  Now’s your chance!

Need more info. for your wait staff?  We’ve got you covered.

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SustainaBull?

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch brochure - Sustainable FoodIt has come to my attention that farmed mussels have received a “best choice” seafood watch rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You ask, “What does this mean?
Some hippies out in California think we are doing something right, and they’re usually critical of animal protein for human use, so thank you hippies. I agree with you wholeheartedly that farming shellfish is sustainable, but want to trim the fat off the word sustainable; it seems to have evolved into a trendy marketing campaign for the masses.

Natural, native, local, non-GMO, gluten free, organic, wild caught, free range, certified whatever… They are all fancy words with confusing connotations. The true nature of sustainable food has to do with how much input of natural resources goes into growing the food, what are the adverse environmental impacts of harvesting over a long term basis, and in short will a food source be available for my grandkids and their grandkids?

Damariscotta shell midden - Sustainable Food

Damariscotta Shell Midden

Shellfish farming meets these requirements, as shellfish themselves have been a part of Native American diets for as long as we can recall. Archaeologists have found shell middens or mounds up and down the eastern seaboard where oysters were consumed by ancient people then tossed into a pile and still sit to this day. The early settlers enjoyed the bountiful fish stocks of New England, including shellfish, and later on in the early 20th century was the heyday for oyster aquaculture in Rhode Island. There were local wars over different shellfish beds in the upper bay and the great salt pond and eventually the resource was over exploited and became exhausted and dormant for several decades.

Currently, we are in a renaissance of oyster culture in the Ocean State due to the cleaner environment, hatchery production of baby oysters and the need for the water-men on the bay to make a decent living. That is what I consider a sustainable food; one that’s been around forever and one that can be around forever if we take care of our environment.

The bivalve molluscan animals, or shellfish, are filter feeders that eat plankton, algae and dissolved nutrients in the water column, which both cleanses the water and creates a nutritious animal protein. Excess nitrogen is a common occurrence in the estuaries of the east coast, often caused by fertilizer runoff from the nice green lawns bordering the water and cattle waste from the scenic farms also bordering the water, among other things.
farmland abutting a waterway

The fertilizers work the same way in an estuary as they do in a backyard, providing the algae with an incredible food source that allows them to flourish. These prolific phytoplankton blooms will eventually deplete all the oxygen in water, die because of lack of oxygen, sink to the bottom, decompose using more oxygen, and create an anoxic (without oxygen) environment that kills all living organisms in the area. This leads to fish kills, stinky beaches and an unbalanced, unhealthy ecosystem.

Filter feeders combat over nitrification and thrive on the nutrient rich waters of our local bay. They are one step above photosynthesis and known as grazers because they eat very low on the food chain meaning there is minimal risk of toxicity build up associated with some seafood. Some of the best reasons to eat cultured shellfish in the future are they do not require fresh water, herbicides or pesticides. Fresh water will be a precious natural resource in the coming years, and growing food with poison is a disgusting practice that is very common since the 1980s.

Underwater oyster cages with biofouling

Underwater oyster cages with bio fouling

Shellfish essentially eat by cleaning the water, but there are other positive effects on the marine environment like creating an ecosystem on the farm itself. Each oyster cage we put in the water has a plethora of marine organisms living in and around it, ranging from soft invertebrates to large predator fish like striped bass and bluefish. The structures provide shelter for juvenile fish to hide, substrate for other mollusks and seaweeds and homes for trillions of crabs.

It is great to see a thriving natural resource being put to good use and to make a living as a small business in the competitive big business American culture.

-Mason Silkes

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