Both John and Cindy studied Aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island, learning about the raising and farming of fish and shellfish. Together, they operate the Cedar Island Oyster Farm and take pride in the fact that they are part of the aquaculture movement, which in recent years has gained in popularity. Raising oysters brings them much gratification. The Wests see their oysters as a vibrant part of the local ecosystem, and as natural filter feeders, essential to preserving the system.
The farm’s three leased sites are granted through the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC). Annually, they pay $250 for the first acre and then roughly $100 for each additional acre. Good for five years, this aquaculture license and lease will be renewed following evidence of the successful raising and harvesting of oysters.
For me, working outdoors and having a connection with the pond is wonderful. As a farmer, it’s very fulfilling to teach the next generation the value of sustainable farming and how we can positively impact the environment. We treasure the time we share while working the farm alongside our daughters. In so many ways, it is a great fit for our family. –Cindy West
Not Your Typical Nursery
During the summertime (mainly July and August), the family focuses on growing baby oysters or seed, which begin their time in the nursery measuring just a few millimeters in size (smaller than the nail on your pinky finger). Disease tested before being sold, the seed comes from suppliers in Fisher Island, New York and Muscungus Bay, Maine. Seed is placed within an upweller system which pumps water from the pond through underwater compartments containing the baby oysters, ensuring the oysters a constant flow of food for fast growth. Larger seed measuring about 12 millimeters in size is also purchased. These slightly larger babies skip the upweller system and are placed directly into Vexar® bags, made of 1/8 inch plastic mesh.
The Wests refer to their nursery as “The Raft”. A series of floating docks and walkways house the upweller systems, as well as systems of floating bags and cages containing small oysters at different stages of growth. The Raft is located on the smallest site, where the water is less deep as compared to the other two sites. The shallower water makes for slightly warmer water temperatures, enhancing oyster growth. Baby oysters grow rapidly, and grow more slowly as they mature. Like young children, baby oysters require more care. John and Cindy take time to shake the bags regularly, and sort the oysters as they grow. This constant handling is essential to achieving a quality oyster for the end consumer. As oysters grow, new fragile shell appears along the outside edges. By constantly being shaken and tumbled, this new growth is broken off. This practice results in a more desirable oyster with a deeper cup and more meat, as opposed to one with a longer flatter shell.
Mortality is part of farming oysters. If John and Cindy purchase 1 million oysters (seed) and from this, are able to raise and bring 500,000 mature oysters to market, then they consider that a good year.
Young Oysters – Beyond the Nursery
Known as the “Sled Lease,” the second site at Cedar Island Oyster Farm holds the bulk of the farm’s gear. Containing oysters in Vexar® bags, a series of wire cages are connected to trawl lines. The area is organized using a grid method to track the locations of oysters at various stages of development. Acting as small artificial reefs, the wire cages also offer protection for many varieties of juvenile fish and crustaceans, like young lobsters. They are routinely hauled from the water and the mesh bags that house the oysters are cleaned using a pressure washer. By removing attached organisms such as sea squirts, seaweed, barnacles and mussels, mesh openings are kept clear in order to maximize water flow, which supplies food to the oysters.
Harvesting an Underwater Crop
The farm’s third site, known as the “Dredge Site” or “Bottom Site,” represents the final growth phase where harvesting eventually takes place. In consideration of boat traffic in this part of the pond, the site is marked by bouys and no floating gear is permitted as part of the lease.
Mature oysters are distributed directly on the bottom of the pond, where they develop shell hardness, a welcome attribute when opening oysters. Dredging doesn’t get every oyster off the bottom, so when overly large oysters come up in the dredge, they are sorted for a different market. (Not everyone likes oysters where the meat is substantially more than a mouthful.)
“The more we dredge, the better the oysters. Even as mature adults, the oysters are still growing, so the continuous tumbling still helps with their development, even at this later stage.” – John West
Pesky Pests and Peckish Predators
Coastal farms like Cedar Island Oyster Farm may have less predatory problems than farms located in an open bay, but they have predators nonetheless. Blue crabs as well as spider crabs can be found on the cages. Crabs are able to reach the oysters through the mesh and work their claws into the shells by using them as pry bars.
Excessive weed growth on the bottom can smother oysters and inhibit their growth. Detrimental, invasive weed is often dredged up with the oysters. The Wests collect the unwanted weed and either recycle it as fertilizer on land, or else discard it elsewhere in the pond.
Phytoplankton growth accelerates and algae blooms occur in the summertime when the water is warm. With increased plant life in the water, more things are competing for the oxygen to survive. Some of the algae dies and sinks, creating a slime that coats the bottom. More oxygen is depleted from the water by bacteria that breaks down this slime coat. The slime also coats eel grass, a naturally-growing local plant which helps to create an environment ideal for the natural growth of local shellfish of all varieties. The eel grass needs sunlight to thrive, and the slime coating acts as a sun block, inhibiting its growth. These oxygen-poor water conditions are an imbalance in the system, which can lead to the death of large populations of fish.
“A good working ecosystem in a pond like this one needs to be surrounded by contained sewer systems and runoff prevention measures, properly engineered drainage systems for paved surfaces, as well as alternative natural surfaces in place of paved ones. These measures let the natural filter feeders like oysters do the job that nature intended them to do: to filter out water impurities that occur naturally.” –Cindy West
Oyster Farming as Sustainable Aquaculture
To raise 1 lb. of salmon, many fish farms require food pellets made from 1-1/2 - 2 lbs. of wild caught fish. Harvesting large quantities of these feeder fish negatively impacts other species of wild fish (like cod, haddock and tuna) that normally feed on them. It’s a vicious cycle of trying to provide a food source by using up another food source. Also, fish at fish farms are typically raised in confined net pens, making the fish more susceptible to pathogens and disease.
“Free range is a more organic, healthier method for raising an animal and it’s better for the local environment — that’s what shellfish farming is about. There’s not much difference in how an oyster is raised on a farm, as compared to how it would exist naturally in the wild. The oysters that we harvest are put into the water by us, and removed by us at a later date when they are mature, year in and year out. Their presence positively impacts the environment, and their cultivation in no way requires or results in the deprivation or depletion of other animal species. In addition, when our farmed oysters spawn, their larvae enter the water column and will naturally travel anywhere in the local ecosystem, just as if they were wild.” – John West
Creating Natural Habitat Through Reef Restoration
Oyster larvae need hard surfaces to attach to, such as rocks or shells. Cedar Island Oyster Farm is participating in, along with the rest of the co-op members, a reef restoration project funded by the USDA. They gather empty shells from oysters that did not survive, bag them, and bring them to a research facility where they are placed in large tanks. Microscopic oyster larvae are introduced to the tank and attach themselves to the shells. New oysters grow on the shells and once they have grown to a size of one inch, they are disease tested, then distributed into a closed area of the bay or coastal salt pond designated as a growing sanctuary. Oyster reefs not only provide an amazing habitat for other marine life such as Tautog, Black Sea Bass, Cunner, eels, and lobster, but also form a natural wave buffer to help protect the shoreline during storms and hurricanes.