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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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!

re-size for blog

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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Summers Gone By…

The summer has flown by as often they do when you’re busy at your work and scarce lift your head to look around at the changing months. Only do you notice the change when the nights grow colder, the days shorter and the arrival of September is pronounced by the vacating tourists. Then you sit back and reflect on what you accomplished, what you still need to finish before the incoming winter, and how all those long days could be packed into such a short season?

Oyster Seeding - Offshore Aquaculture

Oyster Seeding

After doing her duty in the early spring to get the better part of 2.5 million oyster seed planted the faithful vessel the New Hope was retired from her duties at Salt Water Farms. This boat, with a cast of characters, built Salt Water Farms (SWF) from a half hitched idea to a cutting edge of east coast aquaculture, and our gratitude cannot be put into words.

new hope and tdr crossing - Offshore Aquaculture in RI

F/V New Hope and F/V Thomas D. Royal

 

 

We are also grateful to be breaking in our new boat and learning the full extent of what the F/V Thomas D. Royal (TDR) is capable of. It was an easy transition when we started using her in the late spring, like stepping out of a smoky bar and taking a breath of fresh air. All of the tasks that seemed to max out the New Hope were easily accomplished leaving us more time and space to expand our workload. This boat is allowing us to grow to a new level and raise the standards for our company in the present and future.

The TDR is working at our offshore site growing the Newport Cup Oysters in 70 feet of water, installing longlines and riding the swells with style and grace. We are excited to bring these oysters to market and believe they are the deepest water oyster in the country! It is also on the agenda to reseed the Newport site with mussels this year and figure out the subtleties of offshore aquaculture. Having more of a seafaring vessel gives us a steadier platform to expand these difficult, but promising operations.

Tumbling Oyster Cages on the TDR - Deep Water Aquaculture vessel

The Tumbler

Currently at the SWF east passage site we are in the home stretch of the tumbling season which lasts through mid-October. Tumbling cleans the bio-fouling off the cages the oysters grow in, giving them more available food and reducing their overall weight to a manageable one. It also chips the new growth off the shell creating a harder, deeper cupped oyster which is necessary for deep water culture of C. Virginica. With our new operation we have two tumblers on board doubling our speed and shining a light into a future of accelerated gear maintenance (note. tumbling can be monotonous, boring, and hot so the quicker it is done the better).

The Crane

The Crane

Righteous is what sets F/V TDR apart from the other Novi boats in the area. It is a crane on the deck of the boat that laughs at the heaviest of oyster cages and makes moving impossible weights a matter of pulling a few levers. After our oysters have over wintered at our farm, a single set can weigh over 600 pounds. Before the powerful arm of Tom Royal, taking 21 oyster sets would have you sweating in February, cursing the spineless creatures that engulf the cages, breaking tray bottoms because of the weight of the tops and in general struggling every step of the way to harvest the oysters. With Righteous the hardest part is landing the set exactly where you want it without having it spin through the air. The crane also makes it possible to install screw anchors with the Hafbor Drill, as we tested this August and were pleased with the results.

The Thomas D. Royal

The Thomas D. Royal

As we finish tending to our oyster crops this summer, we are already planning on mussel planting in the winter season. The Thomas D. Royal will make this endeavor more streamlined than ever, and we should be able to grow a healthy crop of Blue Gold Mussels® for the late spring of 2016.

 

 

Aquaculture is taking off in our little state, and Tom Royal is at the forefront of the blue revolution as he always was. He is our inspiration and, now more fitting to his character, our workhorse.

Mason Silkes

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The difference between Sea creature and Seafood

 The difference between Sea creature and Seafood

The rain is beating down on our heads, there is lightning cracking through the sky at close intervals, the thunder rolls steadily behind the scenes giving this morning, July 16, 2014, a theatrical atmosphere. As the humidity gives way, the clouds let loose torrents. It is invigorating to be caught in a mid-summer thunder storm when you’re dressed from head to toe in rubber, and the water beads quickly from your gear. We have half of the trip already on board when the sky really gets electric. Then the boat captain yells “let’s hustle to get out of this lightning”. Just another morning at the office…

cages resized for blog

Incoming Oyster Sets

Today we will drop our harvest at the dock and head back out to the farm for another round. The American Mussel sales team has been flying through oysters pushing us to harvest daily, along with the many other activities that go into shellfish farming.

The first step upon arriving at the dock is to get the oyster sets off of the boat. The cages, about 4 feet tall, contain 600-1200 oysters along with several types of biofouling. They weigh up to 600 pounds and can be very difficult to maneuver around the deck of the boat. Nevertheless, they are muscled to the back of the boat where a fork lift can pick them up and bring them to our shore side harvest house 100 yards away.

3rd shift resized

Shore Side Processing Crew

The post-harvest processing of our oysters is not pretty. It will not make the cover of gourmet food magazines or be put on display in high class establishments. It is done by a salt of the earth crew and is an integral part of the operation. The oysters come out of the productive Narragansett Bay waters in cages covered with a variety of invertebrates like sea sponges, tunicates, squirts, brine shrimp and everyone’s favorite mollusk the mussel. They are washed, and picked through by hand several times before emerging as the shiny product that is showcased at your raw bar. It may seem like the work is done when we harvest the oyster sets, but really the hard part is just beginning.

jorge resized for blog

Muddy business

Once inside “The Pad” the processing begins. First the sets are stripped of all the market mussels, then they are broken down piece by piece and dumped into a tumbler which serves to clean them and remove other organic material inside the oyster trays… MUD. There is an intimate relationship between mud and food production that many folks don’t see or want to see. Depending on the day there can be up to 180 trays, and after wards the “dumper” looks like a sweaty- muddy-swamp monster. Ironically this station is desirable by the crew; some people pay to go to the gym, others come to work at AMH.

 

raw oysters

Chipping and Sorting

After the oysters go through the tumbler/washer they start to resemble the Quonsets, Beavers, and Umami’s that we all love. They are then deposited onto a conveyer belt where the crew hand picks each grade, leaving the smallest to be put back into cages and returned to the farm. At this point we ice all of the oysters to ensure they are of the highest quality, and the safest seafood.

rustic quonsets

Rustic Quonsets

 

 

When everything is iced there is another round of hand picking, cleaning, and grading. First the oysters are put through a washer that resembles a commercial dishwasher to removed mud, squirts, or whatever else has attached itself to the shells. Then they are graded, and counted before being sent inside the building to the seawater system.

 

the plant

the Seawater System

 

Throughout the summer months we are taking precautions against food borne pathogens. Our involvement in the 2014 ISSC conference, along with the Rhode Island SMP, led us to develop our own vibrio management plan and stick to it like an anchor on a muddy bottom. Things like water temperature monitoring on the farm, copious usage of ice during processing, 45 degree F chilled sea water storage, and 40 degree F cooler storage will keep our product safe. Vibrios are naturally occurring bacteria in sea water that multiply in shellfish if they are exposed to high temperatures. We are fighting to ensure the safest shellfish comes from our company and a higher standard for all industry so no one has a bad experience with shellfish.

umami shucked

Yum

So the next time you are enjoying a briny Beavertail on the back patio of your favorite raw bar/restaurant, think of all the hard work that went into getting that gleaming bivalve onto your plate. Or say you take a case of Quonsets to a fourth of July party to impress your highfaluting friends and they ask you “where did you get these beautiful oysters”? Tell them the truth; they come from the hands of hard working Americans.

 

~Mason Silkes

(To purchase Quonset Point, Beaver Tails or Umamis, head on over to the AMH website.)

 

 

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The Mighty Duck by Mason Silkes

The Set Up

If Woody Guthrie were alive today he would be wandering down a different type of road. The Trans coastal highways have eight lanes and can get you from New York to LA five different ways in a little under two days, give or take construction and traffic times. That is forgetting the flight that spans the North American continent in a mere 5 hours, a long flight where you need to occupy your mind with something, possibly Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Woody’s own Dust Bowl Ballads.
mussel farming gear

mussel farming gear


It is this album that comes to mind as I wander through the devastation on our mussel farm, a whole season’s crop wiped out by forces beyond my control. Hard work in the fall to get the seeds sown, and harder work in the winter to collect all the broken pieces has me wondering where a mussel farmer should go. The Okies headed west when their crops blew away and the banks ran them off their land, but I figure on staying in Rhode Island until we can figure out how to get mussels to grow in the nutrient rich waters of Narragansett Bay and RI Sound.

The world is a different place and we have increased the speed of “the Human Race” to an exponential magnitude. Information and technology are so common place that it seems normal to have the greatest library in existence (the internet) in the palm of your hand (smartphone). However as food producers we are still at the mercy of mother nature.  We must learn her complex systems and perform a delicate balancing act or just blow on down that old dusty road.

The Duck Bowl Ballads

Eider ducks are migratory birds that range from northern Canada to coastal Virginia. They are avid foragers that have a particular taste for rope grown mussels. The population fluxes each year, but due to conservatory efforts and colder temperatures there was a greater than usual flock landing over RI this year. They arrive sometime in December and inhabit local waters until they can make their way back north in February or March; first to the Gulf of St Lawrence, and later to Hudson Bay where they will breed in the summer and get ready for their seasonal migration.
may eiders

the mighty eider


These birds have down feathers that make them incredibly hardy in cold temperatures. They have the ability to migrate thousands of miles and find their original nesting locations when they arrive back home in northern Canada. The main sensory system is a nostril type organ in their beak.  They also use their beak to pluck and shake the mussels off the line when they dive down to feed. This winter the Common Eider showed us how mighty the duck could be.  It left us famished when it ate all the mussels off our farm. Now we are focusing our efforts on how to regroup and prevent them from finding our farm again.
empty mussel farm

recovering the megaloop


After consulting with farmers from Maine, Canada and Washington State at the aquaculture conference in Portland, Maine we realized this was a regular problem with mussel farmers in the northern hemisphere. Many solutions have come to fruition including the most common which is raft culture with predator nets. Other ideas are scare tactics like boat chasing, water splashing to simulate distressed birds, LED light configurations and acoustic distractions like bird calls or firing blanks from a shotgun. Each farm must develop a strategy to combat the ducks and due to their adaptive nature the strategy must consistently change to keep the birds guessing. We are currently developing our strategy against the eider and feel very confident we will have a good crop of mussels next summer.

Our Plan

Our advantages are the eiders are only around for 3-4 months in the winter time, after 15 years they have not attacked our oyster farm/mussel seed collecting site and we are connected to a worldwide community of mussel growers with similar problems who are always thinking of ways to outwit the predators. We are at a disadvantage because the ducks now know where our mussel farm is and will surely return next year to a good feasting location.
mussel farm

harvesting mussel seed


Last year we harvested our seed rope for the first time in the fall and planted it out to the Dutch Island site at that time. Our new strategy will still be to harvest mussels from the seed rope in the fall to thin them out, but we will plant them on the East passage site to over winter. Then, come February, when the ducks fly north we will do a second thinning and put them on the Dutch Island site or the Newport offshore site to grow out to market size. This will be more work, but there are benefits to this including the multiple thinnings throughout the grow out cycle, which will create a superior product with a more uniform size. Also with the F/V Thomas D. Royal we should be able to do large scale seed harvesting and mussel socking in the same day.

We will continue to research and develop new technologies that would deter the ducks at other sites, though surely we will have trials, troubles and tribulations in the future. We must remember that farming is subject to the environment and massive populations of ducks are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.  We should be thankful for the ability to farm in clean productive water that supports life in many forms. That being said, in order to survive economically we need to protect our crops from predation.  We will do that by playing games of smoke and mirrors, not by outright fighting (with guns) our duck nemesis’.

rope grown mussels

long line aquaculture


It has been an interesting journey this winter, from juvenile mussels on our oyster gear, to Icelandic screw anchors,  mussel farm design, the broad knowledge base of a couple crazy Kiwis, to the cold, hard, endless days of February 2015, and a boat that will allow our operation to grow more efficiently over the next couple of years.
It is an interesting phenomenon how our oyster farm will get covered with mussel seed in the early spring and this will cause our gear to sink and lose water flow/nutrients throughout the summer. Yet when we save the seeds of mussels and try to make a separate farming operation, our new farm is picked clean in the first 3 months. We will still have a small harvest of blue gold mussels this summer because there are plenty of strays interlaced in the oyster gear, but it will not be the large crop we were hoping for. There is an amazing opportunity at our finger tips; free seed, free food, and a desirable final product. Now it is up to us to figure out the details, listen to nature’s sweet song and find a way to make a living on the water harvesting Blue Gold.

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