Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nature vs the Oyster Farmer

Bob and I were starting to feel somewhat comfortable in our roles as oyster farmers when nature tossed in something new and completely unexpected. This came in the form of one of the strangest "blooms" in the waters of Blind Bay that we had ever seen. The ocean water in fall and winter months is beautifully clear, so crystal clear you can peer down some 50 feet through bottle green water to life on the bottom of the bay. Once spring starts to warm up the air and the water the seasonal "blooms" begin and water clarity changes dramatically.

We had just completed a shipment to our Asian buyer and were working on getting 50,000 seed oysters into trays when we noticed the water starting to streak here and there with a pinky-brown colour. At first we were really concerned thinking it was the dreaded "red tide". I had never seen a red tide warning accompanied by reddish goo in the water but this explanation seemed to be reasonable. As the day wore on the bloom increased and eventually we could see it was spreading all over the bay. We finished up work on the growing rafts and headed for shore and the cabin. Once we got close to the shore I could not believe what we saw. The entire shorline was outlined with what was now bright orangey-pink ooze. Talk about good timing. If this guck had turned up a day earlier we would have had to cancel the entire shipment of outgoing oysters.

Later that evening we were having a Nelson Island neighbour and former oyster farmer in for dinner. We asked him if he had ever seen anything like this before and what he thought it might be. He assured us it was not red tide as he had checked in with the local fisheries office earlier. His best guess he said, and he dearly hoped he was wrong, was that this strange coloured stuff everywhere in the water was a once in a blue moon starfish spawn. I imagined the thousands of starfish littered all over the shores of Malaspina Staight, Jervis Inlet and Blind Bay all spewing out millions of starfish eggs or whatever they do to get life started. This was a horrific thought as starfish are the natural and worst enemy of our Pacific oysters. They pry their way into the oyster shell inserting their stomach as I understand it and consume the delicious oyster meat inside the shell. Oysters are the favourite food of starfish and you can find lots of starfish stuck on and under rocks on any good oyster beach, all waiting to creep slowly onto the poor unsuspecting oysters and devour them.

Bob and I did not give the starfish spawn idea much thought as the coloured water vanished in about a week and we continued with the ongoing work of growing oysters. On our last trip up to the island two weeks ago we were pulling stacks of oysters out of the water that we had not had a look at since last May and June. We nearly fell over as the ten-tray stacks were winched out of the water they looked like Christmas trees! Tiny prickly sea urchins were clinging to the trays which is a good thing as they gobble up other problem sealife, however, along with the sea urchins were hundreds of little coloured starfish. Small purple, orange, dark brown and green starfish were stuck on the outside and inside of all the trays full of oysters. The starfish spawn theory now seemed like a pretty good one and not a welcome event at all. We were working to size-sort and bag up oysters for another shipment later the next month and we now had to spend extra hours pulling the nasty critters off our oysters and dumping them into a trash bucket. As we collected bucket after bucket we then had the problem of what to do with them all. Bob who is also known as "Tomato Bob", is a passionate gardener and he decided we would deposit the buckets of starfish in a selected spot in a meadow on the family property and use them to start a really nutrient rich compost. I was not all that keen on this plan unless we buried them with dirt right away. We had declared war on the starfish last summer and pulled a couple of hundred off the rocks around our beach and dumped them in the meadow. As the decaying process went on during the weeks after our starfish raid the pile of dead gooey starfish turned into a bad scene from Lord of the Flies. What looked like millions of big black flies were constantly buzzing in a cloud over the rotting pile and the smell was enough to send you running from 100 feet away. This time we ended up throwing a little dirt on our new cache of dead starfish and I am sure we will have "super dirt" by the time we decide to plant a few tomatoes.

We have discovered there are other man against nature battles that an oyster farmer must wage. Certainly not something we factored in to our hobby of growing oysters. Turns out mussels also spawn and float around in the big ocean looking for something like an oyster growing tray and oysters to cling to while they grow. We have spent days scraping baby mussles off our oysters as buyers are not keen on receiving product with clumps of tiny black mussles. We have a friend that once kindly offered to come and help us out on the oyster growing rafts. We were working through several stacks of mussel lined oyster trays and we asked if he might consider helping with this. Thinking we were making a big deal out of nothing he came along to spend a couple of days with us. Firstly he nearly froze to death in the unseasonable late September cold wind and drenching rain that were almost constant during the two days he spent with us, and he was truly amazed to discover just how many mussels we were dealing with. Endless hours of boring scraping . No surprise he has not booked his next trip back to the oyster farm. Actually I think it was the resident cabin bat swooping about his head when he was trying to get to sleep that evening that really finished him off.

Red tide is another menace and has brought a complete halt to our sales program, usually for six weeks every spring or summer. You don't mess with red tide as it is more scientifically known as paralytic shellfish poisoning, and more than a few sorry shellfish diners have kicked the bucket from ingesting a red tide oyster. Just this last June we had a huge number of large oysters ready to go for the barbeque market in the United States. We were defeated by a red tide and had to cancel our entire shipment. Needless to say there went weeks of work down the drain. As summer progressed the oysters started to spawn and in the process naturally became milky, soft and generally not such a desirable mouthful. By the time we had the all-clear for selling oysters again we were forced to wait until October for colder water and tasty, firm-fleshed oysters.

Who knew oyster farming could be so tricky!?! Nature really does throw you some nasty curves and somehow you manage to work around them. Not much choice really. We now have a lot of respect for oyster farmers and all they have to deal with. Much more than I have just described. Surely the day is coming for more reward for the incredibly hardy and deserving oyster farmer. I for one hope it is sooner than later.