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Hatchery’s Oysters ‘Sell Themselves’

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CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) — The squawks and clucks are gone. Splashes of water and the low hum of machinery have taken their place.

The old chicken barn off Castle Haven Road in Cambridge is now raising a different kind of animal: Chesapeake Bay oysters.

The barn is the oyster hatchery for Marinetics Inc., a private aquaculture facility that raises and harvests oysters under the Choptank Sweets and Choptank Salts brands. The company, established in 1996, harvests between a half-million and one-and-a-half million oysters each year.

General Manager Kevin McClarren came to the company in 1999 from another aquaculture facility in New England. There he grew hybrid striped bass, but he had no trouble switching to oysters.

“They’re both similar,” McClarren said. “You’re still trying to keep animals alive.”Marinetics controls the oysters’ life cycle from birth to harvest. Like a rancher breeding his best animal, the company maintains a stock of breeding oysters.

The entire process from birth to harvest takes about two years, about half the time required for wild oysters. That time is halved by “fooling the oysters,” McClarren said. Feeding the breeding oysters in January causes them to reproduce as they normally do in summer. The spat are collected and raised in the hatchery, where the conditions are controlled. Their food is grown on premises, too.

“You mimic as best you can what’s going on out in the Bay,” McClarren said. “We try to give them variety. In the Bay they’d be eating about a hundred different kinds of food, but here we’re growing three different kinds of algae.”

Once large enough to survive in the river — about half an inch — the oysters are placed into floating cages in the company’s four-acre lease on the Choptank River and continue to grow until harvested.

Not every oyster grows at the same rate. About half of the oysters in the water will be harvested within two years. The other half, however, are not necessarily a waste. Although some die from environmental factors or predation, the remainder just take longer to grow.

The oysters are sorted as they are harvested. Market-sized oysters are washed and shipped out, while smaller oysters go back into the floats to continue growing. McClarren refers to the smaller oysters as “insurance”; the population ensures there are always oysters growing in the water.

Unlike wild oysters, which live on the bottom of the Bay, Marinetics raises its oysters in floating cages. These “floats” — hollow plastic rectangles with a mesh cage in the middle — let oysters live near the surface.

Food and oxygen are more available near the surface than the bottom, and the oyster cages provide protection from predators. The farmed oysters also seem to have greater resistance to diseases — like Dermo and MSX — that have ravaged wild populations, McClarren said.

Growing in floats also prevents silting over; the floating oysters near the water’s surface avoid most of the silt. The combination of less silt and a thorough power-washing after harvest results in a cleaner oyster, McClarren said.

“We don’t send out dirty oysters,” he said. “Chefs and customers expect the oysters to be clean. They don’t want to spend the time and money on cleaning the oysters.”

The floats have disadvantages, however. Oysters kept near the water’s surface have little protection from the heat and cold. Without several feet of insulating water to protect them, the oysters are affected by temperature extremes.

“They seem to not be as susceptible to diseases,” McClarren said. “There was no detectable amount of dead oysters until last year. Then the oysters froze in the winter and we had all the high temperatures in the summer.”

The large heap of shells near Marinetics’ pier illustrates the damaging effects of temperature; it is the remains of about one million oysters killed by the hot summer and cold winter last year.

Unwanted marine life can cause other problems. The floats attract crabs and barnacles, both of which can harm oysters. Barnacles can grow over the oyster cage and crabs can feed on the oysters.

“Crabs can get into the floats when the crabs are little,” he said. “As soon as the crabs grow they find a blunt edge on the oyster, pop it open and eat the oyster.”

Every two weeks the floats are brought to shore and flipped to stop the growth of these creatures. When the floats are flipped, any unwanted marine life is exposed to the air, killing it before the oysters are harmed. The company needs all the oysters it can harvest.

Over the past 15 years business has increased for Marinetics. In the beginning the company was harvesting more oysters than it could sell; that changed as restaurants and chefs began to appreciate the company’s ability to produce a steady supply of oysters at a stable price.

At the Ocean Odyssey restaurant in Cambridge, Marinetics’ oysters are the only oysters on the menu. Chef Travis Todd said he was attracted to the company’s sustainable practices and its constant supply of oysters.

“A lot of it had to do with the sustainability and the availability,” he said. “You can pretty much order how many you want with one day’s notice and they just take them out of the water.”

Today the company supplies its oysters to many other regional restaurants, including the Rusty Scupper and Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, the Narrows in Grasonville and the Annapolis Yacht Club in Annapolis. Marinetics also participates in the annual International Boston Seafood Show to reach out to new clients and distributors.

“I’m not pounding the pavement as much as I used to,” McClarren said. “They pretty much sell themselves.”

The oysters sold themselves well during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. Fishermen in the Gulf were unable to harvest oysters. As a result, Marinetics found itself supplying more oysters, even as the company lost oysters from the summer heat. Despite its success, McClarren is cautious about expanding the business.

“You want production to be the same as sales,” McClarren said. “Otherwise you’re overselling the oysters or not selling enough of them.”

As part of not overextending itself, the company remains focused on selling its oysters in and around the Chesapeake Bay, McClarren said. That focus has let the company benefit from the movements to “eat local” and the push for sustainable foods, both of which are, according to the restaurant industry, becoming more popular.

The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot 2011″ survey of chefs names local seafood and meat, sustainability and sustainable seafood among the top 20 restaurant trends this year.

“We’re getting back to the way things used to be,” McClarren said. “I think the local thing has always been there, but no one has talked about it like that. Take Asian crab meat and Maryland crab meat; everyone prefers the taste of Maryland crabs.

“It’s easier to sell local things locally because people identify with them.”

McClarren emphasizes the sustainable aspect of his farm. Each one of Marinetics’ millions of oysters helps clean the Choptank, filtering the water each time they feed. The oysters also spawn while in the water, releasing many millions of spat into the Bay. These positive effects, however, are not always apparent, McClarren said.

“Empirically, yes, the water has improved,” he said. “It’s had to. Oysters take in the algae and when people eat them that, in itself, is taking the algae out of the water. But our farm is such a drop in the bucket considering the size of the river and the Bay.”

Information from: The Star Democrat of Easton, Md., http://www.stardem.com

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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