As traditional fish stocks in New England continue to decline and the industry endures greater restrictions, fishermen have been creating a new line of work: They are becoming farmers — shellfish farmers.
The cultivation of oysters and clams has become big business in Massachusetts, especially on Cape Cod, but the one source for the state’s $25 million aquaculture industry almost shut its doors.
From Oyster Seeds The Size Of 'Pepper,' A Family Business Grew
Myron Taylor is out on Wellfleet Harbor. He's 74 and has been been raising clams and oysters here since he was a kid.
"And back in the old time when we had to pick up all the oysters seeds on the beach, in order to get them to grow, and it took about four years to get an oyster to grow," he says.
Those wild oyster seeds Taylor picked up off the beach years ago were juvenile oysters and clams that he would plant in nearby waters. But that traditional method for growing shellfish was very slow and often did not yield much product. So like most fishermen on the Cape, Taylor caught cod, flounder and other groundfish to earn a living.
In the late 1980s, when those stocks became scarce, Taylor turned to lobstering. It was around that time he heard about some scientists in Dennis who were harvesting tiny clam seeds and selling them to fishermen to grow.
"The first group we got, it looked like pepper, it was so small! he said. "Yeah, like pieces of pepper. So we put it in a bag in a little box we made with window screen so it wouldn’t go out through, and then they started growing and they kept getting bigger and bigger, and we just kept going from there."
Eventually Taylor started a side business farming shellfish, and that’s when his family got involved — including his daughter, Rebecca Taylor.
"Mom and I did a lot of the quahogging. We did a lot of digging while he was working on the boat," she said. "We were digging more and more quahogs ... and then oysters became much more popular. So now we're doing oysters and quahogs."
The Taylors buy their seed at the Aquacultural Research Corporation in Dennis. Founder Dick Kraus shows me several large tanks where millions of microscopic shellfish are spawning.
"What we do in this room is we spawn shellfish either oysters or hard clams ... razor clams, surf clams, whatever, you name it," he says.
Saving The Aging Hatchery Holding Together A Major Cape Industry
ARC was created in 1960 and is believed to be the longest running commercial shellfish hatchery in the U.S. This is where the shellfish aquaculture industry was born.
The facility now harvests about 110 million oyster and clam seeds a year and sells them to just about every shellfish farmer in Massachusetts. The growing $25 million industry depends on ARC.
Co-owner Gail Hart has worked here for 39 years.
"We are now into third generation farmers in the aquaculture industry," she says. "We have enabled people to have a good living, where they control their own livelihood and have raised their kids and paid their mortgages and then put their kids through college, and now those kids are coming back and taking over the industry."
But the aging facility is falling down — literally. The buildings leak, the electricity shuts off when it rains, and part of the repair shop is closed because the roof has caved in.
For several years, the owners tried to find the money to rebuild and keep the hatchery open.
"We felt a tremendous moral responsibility to all these people and their families who rely on us."ARC Co-owner Gail Hart on trying to keep the hatchery from closing
"We tried really hard to keep it going, but eventually it got to the point where we couldn’t do it anymore," said Founder Kraus. "This place is gonna fall down this year, all by itself."
The hatchery sits on almost 40 acres of pristine barrier beach. It’s land that could easily yield millions of dollars from real estate developers, but Hart says that would have meant an end to the industry.
"We felt a tremendous moral responsibility to all these people and their families who rely on us, and it wasn’t easy to just say, 'oh well, we’re done — trophy lot on this 40 acres on the beach, see you all later.'"
Last year it became clear that ARC's owners would need to close the facility — and that’s when $6 million deal was brokered. In this unusual public-private partnership, ARC would be bought by private investors and the surrounding land would be conserved in perpetuity. The town's of Dennis and Yarmouth helped purchase the conservation land, and venture capitalists and local non-profits bought the business.
Dan Wolf, who owns Cape Air and is state senator for Cape Cod and the Islands, helped forge this partnership.
"The growing of shellfish, particularly oysters, is part of our wastewater mitigation plan on Cape Cod, so we can reverse some of the damage that's been done there," Wolf said. "The fishing industry has been under incredible pressure as we have overfished and mismanaged that industry. This is a way to mitigate and rectify that, because we are creating a sustainable fishery here — and then the bonus is that we get to eat really healthy shellfish here that are locally grown. So it's just a home run."
When ARC is rebuilt in the spring, it will be able to double its production. ARC will also plant new oyster beds throughout the region. This will not only create more native shellfish, but also prevent erosion, help restore wild habitat and keep the waterways clean.
For second generation shellfish farmer Rebecca Taylor, keeping ARC open means she can continue earning a living out on Cape Cod bay.
"Without being able to buy seeds from ARC, we would have had to move away," she said. "My son is growing up in town — he's 10 minutes away from his grandparents and that's really important — and I don’t know how else we'd have afforded to stay in town. Really we came back because there’s shellfishing."
Rebecca Taylor plans to harvest shellfish alongside her father for as long as she can — and she hope that one day her son will join them.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story contained an incorrect photo caption. ARC Founder Dick Kraus shows tanks where algae is produced that oysters and clams will feed on — not tanks filled with microscopic seeds. We regret the error.
This segment aired on September 7, 2015.