Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

This week, we stay in the present as we explain the West Robins oysters’ family tree. We find this topic particularly relevant as we plant our first 'crop' of oysters, which we endeavor to introduce to your willing gullets starting in Summer ‘17. In explaining the birth of a cultivated oyster, we address a commonly posed question: “How do you catch your oysters?”

While there’s no such thing as a stupid question, we will laugh if you ask us that. We don’t catch oysters, at least not for now. Oysters in the wild procreate irregularly year over year -- some years will have fantastic and productive spawns (called ‘sets’) while in other years water temperatures stay unseasonably low, weather patterns are funky, or pesky algae blooms crop up, collectively inducing oysters to keep it in their pants. These factors can contribute to limited waves of new oyster babies. Biologists refer to this up and down spawning pattern as ‘recruitment’ and populations that are not self-sustaining as ‘recruitment-limited.’

In areas with low shellfish densities, including most (beginning) farms, oyster populations are recruitment-limited, causing farmers like us to turn to oyster ‘hatcheries,’ which grow oyster ‘seed,’ or small oysters. Purchasing baby oysters allows us to plan our projected output by buying seed in amounts proportionate to what we will harvest each year. As a farmer, this makes keeping up with oyster demand easier and more predictable -- imagine telling chefs at some of our country’s finest restaurants in New York that they can’t serve our oysters for a year because the mood wasn’t right last July!

Turning our attention to the seed source, roughly 30 oyster hatcheries produce seed on the East Coast of the United States and five produce seed on the West Coast. Not all of those hatcheries produce seed at scale or for commercial purposes.

Two of the most notable commercial hatcheries on the East Coast include those of the Mook Sea Farm in Maine and the Fishers Island Oyster Farm in New York.

Why single out Mook and Fishers, other than their mystique and isolation? For starters, both are industry leaders when it comes to breeding both beautiful and biologically robust oysters. Growers whisper their names and buy them drinks. Both operations have 30+ years of hatchery experience and produce seed that flies off the shelves (tanks) at the start of every growing season. Also, Will was born 4 miles from the Mook Seafarm global HQ and Walker worked on the Fishers Island Oyster Farm at the start of his oyster career.

Most hatcheries follow the same basic principles. Hatchery operators seek to produce an oyster as biologically robust as it is visually appealing and delicious, all the while utilizing the same natural selective breeding technologies available thousands of years ago. 

Bill Mook showing off his hatchery on the banks of the Damariscotta (via Portland Press Herald).

The process begins with choosing a broodstock.  

Broodstock consists of the oysters that sat at the cool table in high school and didn’t learn anything new in sexual education classes. They’re fast growing, pretty, resilient, and they know it. Kidding aside, a good broodstock choice exhibits above-average growth rates, disease resistance, and that deep shell cup chefs yearn for, shuckers love and menus brag about.  

With broodstock selected, hatcheries coax the males and females to start spraying sperm and eggs into the water by manipulating water temperature and nutrient concentration. Quite a few hatchery gurus have special spawning playlists on their iPods (wish we were kidding). Ultimately, these skilled hatchery lab-rats collect hundreds of millions of floating oyster larvae that result from the spawn. Hatcheries then coddle the new larvae by providing an ample supply of oyster baby formula consisting of lab-grown algae.

Leeeetle, tiny babies.

Leeeetle, tiny babies.

Some hatcheries then part ways and sell their tiny oyster larvae, while others have affiliated nursery operations to hang onto their seed for a little while as it grows, letting them sell later at higher prices and sizes up to about an inch in length.

Farms (like West Robins Oyster Company) line up at hatchery doors to submit seed orders for a given year. Different farms have unique strategies regarding the number and size of seed they purchase in order to customize the process of nurturing those angsty adolescents into full bodied beauties for your palate. Generally speaking, the smaller the seed, the longer a farm needs to grow oysters to market size, but the more money the farm saves on the initial purchase of baby oysters.

For our first growing season, we are proud to partner with some of the best players in the hatchery business. We happily support their operations with our orders because we benefit from the domain expertise these industry pioneers have developed over the last 30 years. They live, breathe and speak everything ‘oyster’.

In the coming weeks, we will provide you with a deeper peek at the introduction of baby oysters to our farm, something that hasn’t happened for over 75 years.

West Robins' baby oysters, coming to a mouth near yours Summer '17.

West Robins' baby oysters, coming to a mouth near yours Summer '17.

Next week, though, we’ll jump back and cover the action of the first European analysis of New York’s legendary oyster beds. To quote Mark Twain via Mulberry Sellers, “there’s gold in them thar hills!”