Oyster Guide

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Another Nor’ Easter Again

Alas, it’s the winter that wants to last, feel the arctic blast, nothing comes to pass.

No fishing no fun, freezing where I come from, a month of nor Easters after we thought it was done.

In the slow defrost, its hard not to get lost, tossed in the sunlight, fried by the fireside.

Please give me reprieve from the winter that wont leave, snow days, slow days, dreaming of wearing short sleeves.

The Innovators progress is coming along with a looming deadline of May 15 to go back into the water. The weather is not easy to deal with, but the makeshift barn built on the back of the boat gives shelter against the ongoing streak of nor’easters. Its not necessarily a safe haven, but it keeps the snow off and the rain out for the most part (just don’t stand out there when the wind is blowing 40 NE unless you want to experience the rapture first hand- walls shaking, tarps shivering, the roof wanting to pull off the frame, quite terrifying).

barn on boat

The barn on a boat

The progress is ongoing, and every day is a new project to tackle. So we take it in stride, and welcome the help of various outside contractors to push the progress along. Pine Hill Equipment from Westport MA, has been a huge help with all the difficulties associated with changing a boat built for salmon farming into a boat for shellfish farming.

For example; we need to run hydraulic winches, a bow thruster, a crane, and electric oyster farming equipment. After looking at the main engine, and the clutch we realized that would be impossible with the existing set up. Back to the drawing board with Pine Hill, and “voila” we have extra engines including an auxiliary “smart” hydraulic pump, and a generator. Problem solved theoretically, now pass it along to ole Adam to figure out how to get them below deck, anchored to the boat, and hooked up in the right places.

thruster 3

Smart pump only pushes hydraulic fluid when necessary. Note the custom stainless exhaust pipe

They sent out one of their top welders to cut a semicircle hole in the hull of the boat and weld a aluminum pipe 12”x4’ back to the boat. There was no defined measurements, just the angle of the dangle to figure out. In a day the hole was cut and the pipe tacked in, another day and he was finished, and the hard part of our bow thruster installation was complete. The bow thruster is necessary on a boat like this because of its limited maneuverability; a bow thruster helps a boat to position by pushing the front, while the rudder (in the stern behind the propeller) controls the back. The TDR only uses a rudder to steer and because of its shape this is plenty sufficient.


Bow thruster tube custom weld job

More help came from down under when the Kiwis made their annual appearance at American Mussel. There was much deliberating on how to install the gantry posts that we received from the New Zealand in 2017, but it was not until Graham and Joe arrived that we got the engineering down proper. These 6”x6”x10’ galvanized steel posts will go through the deck and anchor to the concrete hull in specially designed “shoes”. They will also anchor it to the deck with thick aluminum plates before extending 6 feet above the side of the boat (note: the pronunciation of aluminum, and deck are not the same when spoken by these fellows…). Once again its figured out in theory, now pass it along to ole Adam to put it into practice and watch him sweat with the anticipation of May 15!

The list keeps getting longer for ideas on the Innovator because everyone is under the impression that having the boat in our backyard is a one-time deal considering the nightmare that was getting it there. Another reoccurring nightmare comes every time we need to get through the concrete to the bottom of the boat. 6 inches of concrete line the entire hull of the boat for ballast or support. This needs to be drilled, jackhammered, or chiseled out every so often and the task is very laborious.

hole in concrete

This 6″x18″x6″ deep hole took about a day to drill, chisel, and chip. Needed to fix a crack in the aluminum hull.

The people that we work with are great, full of experience and ideas that keep us moving in the right direction (not always forward, often backwards). For example, Bay View marine was helping with our stuffing box but had the idea that we should check our cutlass bearing. Sure enough they were dissimilar metals, bronze bearing and stainless shaft, that would eventually corrode one another creating a serious problem down the line. Another project that includes pulling the 20’ long shaft out of the boat which is no easy task. Fortunately it is back in, and done properly to last another 20 years or so. There has been a lot of those holdups, but we are of the mind that sacrifices now will pay dividends later.

So we keep on keeping on, and waiting for those May flowers…

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2017 another year bites the dust…

2017 has been a Whirlwind Kind of Year. Each week proving to be different and more jam packed than the previous one, and the trend continues up to the day I write this. As the new year approaches, it is important to reflect on 2017, the good the bad and the ugly, and to plan for 2018, the good the better and the beautiful.

sunrise ruggles


2017 the good. We planted more oysters than we ever have, and the farm has a huge inventory of 3.5-4 inch salty, briny, Virginicas that will keep us stocked through the winter and spring all the way into the summer. So, to the customers reading this, Buy, Buy, Buy! QBU’s!

Quonsets at the White House

We purchased a brand new to Salt Water Farms work barge/boat/US Navy destroyer thing that will put us on a new level. Once it is fitted out it will resemble a Kiwi mussel farming boat complete with gantry cranes, and mega star wheels. “The Innovator” will have similar capabilities to the Thomas D. Royal, but it is a bulkier (weighing 3 times as much) aluminum design that can do more heavy lifting.untitled3

The bad. Hurricane season, while being epic for New England surfers, was not so epic for the offshore oyster farm. We lost our entire crop of Newport Cup Oysters due to the massive swells rolling into Rhode Island consistently starting in August and through the middle of October (I am not complaining about the waves though check out this page! https://vibbi.com/twocamsam). The lessons we learned were valuable; beef up our oyster sets and how they attach to the longline, and never underestimate the power of the ocean!

rope on deck 1

The ugly. Political antics is what comes to mind first, but this blog is about real life, not fake news or who’s probing who. So, we cleaned up our oyster farm off of Jamestown, put some new anchors in, and finally after four years of limping along at one sixth of our capacity at that site we will have a fully operational farm for 2018. Of course, we still need to reinstall the longlines we removed; removing the longlines was the ugly part because they were covered in mussels and biofouling that filled the TDR as we pulled them into the boat. That’s the best ugly I can think of without straying to far off topic.

photo page underwater

So, with a few parts of 2017 highlighted, I can look back and realize how few I actually talked about. The year flew by with a steady work load of tumbling, planting, replanting, mussel planting, and mussel harvesting. Those activities are the “nuts and bolts” of Salt Water Farms and get more fine tuned each year. I will leave 2017 at that, if the reader needs more details ask to see the TDR log book; docked in Quonset Point RI.


2018 and Living the Dreamanother screen shot

2018 the good. The Innovator will play a crucial role in increasing the capacity of our oyster farm. In years past we struggled to keep up with the maintenance end of oyster farming. We would be flat out from April through October trying to stay on top of harvesting, biofouling mitigation, and whatever other side projects we could fit in the mix. Now we can have two boats kicking butt all summer, which will have a significant effect on our production capabilities for oysters, mussels, and other projects on the farm.

The better. We have beat the ducks (I know I will regret writing this). By planned planting and proper placement, we believe 2018 will yield a bumper crop of mussels. Furthermore, we are experimenting with different reseed timings that will hopefully produce a fall to winter crop of Blue Gold Mussels bringing us closer to a year-round crop of these outstanding mussels, or the holy grail of shellfish farming in southern New England waters.mason's photo of the lines

The beautiful. Quonset Point, Beavertail, and Umami Oysters. Our bread and butter just keep getting better. The more you handle your oysters the better you get to know them, and the end result is a well-rounded oyster that is “deep and introspective”. Maybe we can use that line to describe the flavor profile it’s on par with some of the other descriptions I’ve seen lately, “apples or mushrooms”? C’mon. I still prefer the old fashioned “like kissing a mermaid”. Anyway, all the energy we spend practicing good husbandry pays off in the final product. We are out there year-round with our oysters through the nasty New England nor’easters, the bitter cold winter, the blazing summer sun, and whatever weather comes our way. Its not always bad conditions on the farm, but we are always there practicing our craft, honing in on what works, driving, thriving and scuba diving.

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A Friday in Musselville

In the morning the sweet steam from the cup of coffee fills my nose as I drive slowly through the rain and dark trying to break through my sleepy haze before arriving at work. The boat sits silently in the dark with the equipment loaded, ready, and waiting for the day to begin. We chug slowly east as the sun creeps over the horizon and turns the world crimson red, we contemplate the weather, and if we will get the day’s work in before a Nor’ Easter blows through. It’s a Friday in March, and the last day of mussel seeding for the year, it has not been easy to haul up the over packed seed lines, and we are ready for this week to be done.

 02.02.16 sunrise righteous

We get to our farm as the sunrise dissipates to soft daylight, and start hauling the seed into the boat with no real problems. Waiting this late in the seasons makes the mussels heavier, and harder to deal with. Still we truck on hauling up a mixed bag of beautiful fully stocked seed rope, and broken tangled neglected seed rope. After clearing out the last of it from the water we start our journey south going from our farm in the bay, under the Newport Bridge, past Fort Wetherill and Castle Hill, through the narrow channel that so many ships have sailed before and into the open ocean. When we reach open water we set our heading for east, and cruise past the multimillion dollar mansions that speckle the rocky coastline of Newport dreaming about the people that built those mansions, and where the money came from; railroads? Oil money? Mussel farming?? Most likely they were mussel tycoons from the late 1800’s!

 seed mussels closeup

While we are steaming from one location to another we take a quick bite to eat, and then proceed to rearrange the deck of the boat to replant the seed we just harvested. Setting up the other set of equipment is an important step to do correctly because minor mistakes take forever to correct when you are in the middle of seeding. Also the equipment has a tendency to be finicky so a watchful eye must be upon it the whole time.

03.07.17 blue golds 2

We get to the offshore site. This is the first one in America to produce any commercial mussels, and although it is not in federal waters it is still an offshore farm that is operating (a point of contention in the aquaculture world because several people are making this claim but not producing any shellfish only stories). We pull the sunken longline from the depths of the ocean, and do a quick inspection of the seed catching ropes that we set out earlier that year, and grow out rope that we left through the summer and into the winter as an experiment.


Everything looks good so we start into seeding as the skies off to the east darken ominously, and the time bomb starts ticking. Already this site is difficult to work with our current boat, and the 30+ mph winds in the forecast would make it downright dangerous. So we work quickly to beat out the storm.

We lift the 1000 pound mussel bags and dump them into a hopper, a belt runs underneath throwing them into a tube  that surrounds them in a biodegradable cotton, that gives them time to attach their byssals to the grow out rope. We tie lashings onto the mainline at 10 meter intervals as the seeded mussel rope is pumped out into the ocean. It is going smoothly for a couple of bags, but the storm can be seen on the horizon much closer now. Tensions really rise when the cotton breaks, and the operation grinds to a halt with 1 bag left to dump in the hopper. We jump down to fix the broken cotton back to the seed rope, but it rips again! Then the waves start rocking the whole working platform as we try to figure out why the cotton keeps ripping. Finally as the wind kicks up another notch we realize the cotton is catching on itself and not able to pull through on its own. I loosen the remaining cotton as the operation resumes, and after a stressful hour the mussels are seeded onto the longline, and we are nearly finished.

The last step is to float the line properly in the water column which is easier said than done. It needs to float 20’ below the surface of the water. The weights are always changing depending on how much the mussels are growing, and you have to drop the line in the water to really see how it floats. Storm is not on the horizon now, it is right on top of us. We drop the line in the water, but alas there are too many floats! We try to jump back on, but the wind is blowing us all over the place. We manage to take off one last float, and it looks good enough so we let the wind be at our backs and blow us home through the pissing rain and cold.

The rocky ride home gets better as we round the corner into Newport harbor, a historical safe haven from the high seas. An hour and a half later we are back at the dock ready for a beer, and a weekend. TGIF and thank god mussel planting is done for the year.  Although we are already busy planning next year’s game plan.

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When the Days Start to Stretch and the Snow Melts

When the days start to stretch and the snow melts

The west wind blows hard, but the bitter bite is gone

The hibernating oyster farmer stretches his arms out, views the sunrise over the Bay, and assess if the wind will let up long enough to harvest the market oysters

The work piles up but the weather is stubborn

The west wind turns north and the snow falls

The cold gray water looks unforgiving as it splashes through the scuppers, and out the stern of the open transom on the way back home

Slowly the boat chugs through the fog

Leaving a wake that disappears into the abyss

The islands appear like an aberration only to disappear behind their veil, unnerving if you are lost, but mystical if you are familiar with the waterway

Sometimes you look at a scene so long that it becomes mundane, it losses the allure that was once there when it was new and exciting. To me, that is why seasons are so important. They take the same scene and shift it gradually over the course of a year until it comes back around full circle. It creates a new allure to watch the cycles of nature, and try to make sense of something that is much more complex than we could ever comprehend.

So here we are again in the late winter, anticipating the spring and summer. Lately we have been harvesting sets thick with biofouling, but also stocked with first class oysters. We have been setting out seed rope to catch the all-natural mussel set at our farm. Also we are planning on a major overhaul of our farm beginning this spring, that will increase our grow-out area significantly, and decrease our headaches substantially (if all goes to plan).

It is a lot to take in sometimes when you think about all the projects before us, but if you take it step by step things start to sort themselves out.

Several months later

Now we are halfway through the planting season for oysters, and still going strong. The spring was kind to us, and we were able to clean up the overwintered oysters along with all the other projects that prepare us for the summers rush. Still running into kinks here and there with breakdowns and setbacks, but due to our due diligence we are able to hurdle or side step these trivial events, and work around them as well as through them.

For example: hydraulic line on crane blew out last week and the boat was out of commission for a couple days. While waiting for parts to fix the crane we hammered out all this gear work that has been sitting on the back burner for some time. Now the hydraulic line is fixed and we are back in action on the boat with all our loose ends tied up on shore.

The weather is grey today, but we got to things to do anyway, hop on the boat and sail away, to the same place we go everyday.

 Fighting that stinging feeling, when I open my eyes and look at the ceiling, and there’s nothing as appealing, as lying down but my mind is reeling… so…

Jump out of bed like your life won’t wait, jump in the water to invigorate, your senses are singing the spring has come and gone, summer is upon us but it won’t be here for long.

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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.


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.




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.


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.


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.

beaver resized

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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