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Blue Blog: Dispatches from an Oyster Boot Camp

"Pearls of Wisdom" from Senior Program Director Peter Bryant

From July 25-29, Builders Initiative’s Peter Bryant ventured to an oyster farming boot camp with Baywater Shellfish — Read up on Peter's adventures with these daily diary entries, filled with pearls of wisdom from this once-in-a-lifetime journey!

July 24, 2022

Eve of Oyster Farm Bootcamp

A quick entry on the eve of Builders' very first "applied" professional development days as I prepare for a week of work at Baywater Sweets Oyster Farm, working with its CEO Joth Davis and crew. I'm excited about this great opportunity and got acclimated to Puget Sound living with a day on Whidbey Island, before heading over to Hood Canal for some waterfall hiking and oysters (and clams) at Hama Hama Oysters! One word about the week — It is going to be HOT!! Expected to hit 96° on Tuesday and Wednesday. Last year, there was a heat spell of several days over 100°, which led to the die-off of millions of oysters. Not sure how that will change the "oyster boot camp," but it's clear that climate change is upon us, and I will keep you posted.

July 25, 2022

Day One

Well, the trip has gotten off to a great start with a morning of work at Blue Dot Sea Farms, located at Hood Canal Head. Blue Dot is a five-acre shellfish and seaweed farm in the northern part of Hood Canal. Blue Dot grows bull kelp and sugar kelp in the winter and oysters for harvest in the fall.

Blue Dot's oysters benefit from Hood Canal's strong currents and nutrient loads and they are sold under the Baywater Sweets name that Joth has built farming on the mudflats in Thorndyke Bay on the Hood Canal. Today, we pulled some oysters from Blue Dot's cages, which are floating on the water to remove barnacles, promote shell and meat growth, and prevent the build-up of barnacles in the cages. The process was simple and quite effective, with the oysters being pushed into a tumbler/sorter contraption with different-sized holes to allow for oysters of certain sizes to tumble out once they have been cleaned. The oysters are then placed in new cages that have been sitting on the barge for at least four days to kill all algae and barnacles that have accumulated on them for the past three weeks. And back to the ocean for growing again. The whole process lasted about two hours. During the off-season, Blue Dot grows seaweed to provide for its snack food SeaCharrones products. This provides four-season employment for Blue Dot's staff and ample environmental benefits from kelp filtering pollutants and nutrients. Blue Dot's kelp is also being used as a soil additive to enhance nutrients. All-in-all, this has been a great first day learning about the oyster farming business.

July 26, 2022

Day Two

A couple of interesting developments after two days on the oyster farm. First, I had no idea we would be harvesting such a diversity of species. Over the past two days, we've been harvesting, processing, and cleaning oysters, and harvesting geoduck (pronounced "gooey-duck"), which is essentially a giant clam that sells for $40/clam in Hong Kong. We've also been harvesting manila clams. Why the diversity? Well, part of it relates to the land itself, and part of it relates to the need for diversity in the face of climate change. On the former, when Joth Davis bought the land more than 30 years ago, he knew it would be a great spot for farming oysters. He didn't know the intertidal lands of Thorndyke Bay would provide the perfect habitat for growing geoduck — where you essentially need more than three feet of a sandy substrate for the geoduck to grow.

Geoduck is a lucrative business for Baywater Sweets, and the company is now growing geoduck on eight acres of submerged lands. Geoducks take six to seven years to reach maturity, so this is a slow sector for making money — But, it is lucrative when you can sell 200 organisms for $8000 in Hong Kong. Geoduck harvesting is hard work — with the use of a hose to flood and move the sand while you reach down to grab the organism before it buries deeper into the substrate.

July 27, 2022

Day Three

A brief entry this morning on seaweed waste and circular economies. Often, during the course of the oyster season, seaweed accumulates on the farm. This is a nuisance to the oyster farm because it attaches to the oyster bags and can cover vast amounts of the sand, which can suffocate marine life like clams, cockles, and other species. Recently, Joth Davis had an idea: What if you could collect the seaweed, which has lots of nutrients in it, dry it, and then use it as fertilizer for agricultural purposes? While this idea isn't brand-new, it is novel and could potentially create an additional commercial opportunity by converting a nuisance oyster farm challenge into a circular economy opportunity. Joth even talks about potentially selling the seaweed to the timber company he is leasing the land from as a soil amendment for the saplings they plant after deforesting.

Additionally, by returning the seaweed to the soil, there is the potential for carbon sequestration benefits with this approach. Joth is currently working with Eli Wheat, a professor at the University of Washington who has developed 10,000 lbs of kelp on his organic farm on Whidbey Island and is documenting the results. Baywater is also developing a proposal in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund to follow the carbon first by documenting the carbon uptake in the soil and then seeing what is being sequestered. So, Baywater is pioneering new ways of converting waste into potential commercial products that could help with climate change.

Editor's Note: Here's a great video about kelp that features Joth and Eli's collaboration!

July 28, 2022

Day Four

The Journey of an Oyster

Having spent nearly a week here, I finally understand all that goes into Baywater Oysters and the process is complex.

It begins in Manchester at Pacific Hybreed's hatchery facility. Baywater buys its oyster seed from Pacific Hybreed — which, in full transparency, is a Builders investment through our Oceans Impact Investing fund. Pacific Hybreed is creating hybrid oysters more resilient to climate change and disease. And, Baywater and Pacific Hybreed also share an owner in Joth Davis. Generally, Pacific Hybreed starts the process with brood stock oysters — changing water temps and increasing food supply to create a spawning event. Once the male and female oysters spawning occurs — which is a one-day event — oysters are transferred to big tubs where they are fed algae for about three weeks. Once they have grown a bit, the oysters are moved to bottles on Manchester's dock, where they get access to nutrients from Puget Sound and natural sunlight in a safe environment. After another 3.5 weeks, they will be 1/4-1/2" large. At this point, the oysters are moved to a FLUPSY – an acronym for Floating Upwelling System. This is essentially a raft on the water, where water is pumped through on a regular basis to continue shell and animal growth. The Baywater oysters will spend approximately one month at the FLUPSY facility, which is located at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island.

After one month, the oysters are large enough to be transferred to the intertidal net bag at Thorndyke Bay on the Hood Canal. They will start in nursery bags for 3-4 months and then graduate to final grow bags for 6-10 months. All in all, the Baywater oysters have four "homes" over an 18-month growing period. Baywater produces approximately one million oysters per year with a goal to triple that in the next few years. Key to the growth will be expanding production on the intertidal lands of the Bay, plus two important tech innovations they have implemented during the past year. The first is a new sorting machine that automates the sorting of oysters, which used to be done manually in the form of people sizing the oysters by hand. Now, a computerized light sensor scans each oyster as it goes through the processing machine. And, then, based on the size of the oyster, different streams of compressed air push the oysters into different-sized bins. This state-of-the-art processing device dramatically reduces the processing time. The second innovation at Baywater was the buildout of wet storage so that oysters could be held in cold water tanks several days after processing, which will allow for larger volumes of sales with greater consistency. Between the tech innovations, the hatchery breeding program to develop more climate- and disease-resilient oysters, and the low-tech FLUPSY system for continued growth in the early stages of development, Baywater is posted to continue to be a leader in the oyster industry.

July 29, 2022

Day Five

One of the most interesting things about Baywater Shellfish is how important continuous improvement is — based on scientific research and innovations with respect to harvest techniques, climate resilience, and ecosystem impacts. The partnership with Pacific Hybreed is especially useful here, as Pacific Hybreed is constantly trying to measure the productivity and growth of its triploid (juvenile) oysters.

Additionally, they are testing the resilience of oysters to different temperature and nutrient thresholds. While I was visiting, Pacific Hybreed prepared a new scientific assessment of its triploid oysters in small cages at Bayeater to measure growth and survival rates. Normally, oysters of the same size would go to the FLUPSY, where they would be better protected from the elements. These constant innovations will set Baywater apart in the coming years as the shellfish sector continues to face changing environmental conditions. So that's a wrap on a great week of learning, laughter, and experimentation — and literally breaking in my Xtra tough boots on the mudflats of Thorndyke Baky. Along the way, I got to learn more about the interconnections, both personally and professionally, between Blue Dot Sea Farms, Baywater Shellfish, and Pacific Hybreed. I got to see firsthand how Joth Davis is transferring his more than 30 years of knowledge on shellfish farming and science to his son Caleb, and the enormous pride Joth gets from seeing how committed Caleb is to running a great business.

And we had fun — mixing in a kayak trip into the estuary and a beach cookout as well as a night on Joth's retrofitted trawler, complete with geoduck sashimi and a cooking demonstration. I will never forget the great hospitality and commitment John made to making my week a great experience. And it whets my appetite for more oyster and shellfish work!

Adios for now,