Planting Oysters

Sunrise over Narragansett Bay paints a timeless portrait in my mind. Light winds and a glassy water surface mean that today will be a great day to plant the juvenile oyster spat we picked up from the ferry last night. At six thirty AM the seed is being transferred by hand from the old GMC truck onto the New Hope, and New Shell oyster boats. In the background of my mind the booming voice of Bill Silkes cries “Be careful these are live animals we’re dealing with here!”  When all of the seed is on deck Captains Mark Goerner and Adam Silkes cast the lines to the dock, and the boats begin their slow steam over to the 20 acre farm in Narragansett Bays glacially carved east passage.

The two separate boats head to different areas of the farm to plant their load of seed. The New Hope locks onto North 13 and begins driving forward to find empty trays that have been deployed in previous weeks. Each long line contains 63 sets, each set contains six cages, and each cage contains 200 oysters. This means that a long line will have about seventy five thousand Quonset point Choice Oysters at any given time. When we get to the first set of the day the burlap bag full of juveniles is dumped onto the table, and the planting begins.

Often times people think of oysters as a fishery because they are harvested from the ocean. The idea of aquaculture is not completely understood in our society, and often times it is downcast because of false accusations of environmental pollution. On the contrary, oysters, which filter up to 50 liters of ocean water per day, help to clear the bay of algae which could be detrimental to ecosystems if allowed to build to harmful levels. Oysters turn excess nitrogen that seeps into the water from lawn fertilizers into one of the highest quality protein sources in the world. Aquaculture is gaining momentum in North America, and does not stand against fisheries, but rather to fully utilize our available resources.

Planting our oysters seems like a slow meticulous process; 200 to a tray for 500 consecutive trays, but this precision is necessary to get a high quality final product. The planting continues once a week through late May, and June, with millions of juvenile oyster seed being planted at Salt Water Farms. Farming the ocean draws many parallels to farming the land; plant your seed, watch it grow, clear the weeds, cut back growth to optimize output, and harvest your final product. This is an age old concept brought back to life off Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.

~ Mason Silkes

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