It was a beautiful day in Tomales Bay, Calif. A group of college students stared down into the shallow water from their kayaks, trying to bring the rows of oyster bags sitting at the bottom into focus. The students floated peacefully, listening to oyster catcher and sustainable farmer Luc Chamberland explain the delicate balance between oysters and seawater as he held up handfuls of tablespoon-sized shellfish for everyone to see.
“The most important element of any oyster farm is water quality,” he said later in an interview. “You can’t do it in an area where there is no good water, so you have to protect that.”
To Chamberland, the only way to truly appreciate the connection between oysters and the surrounding environment is by jumping into the water yourself. That’s why a year and a half ago, he started Pickleweed Point Community Oyster Farm in Marin County. Like a community garden of the sea, it’s a place where local people can come learn to grow and eventually harvest their own oysters.
Surprisingly, Chamberland is not alone. Community oyster farms have been popping up recently as the local food movement meets the fight to improve water quality in bays and estuaries.
Water quality is critical to oyster farming. Oysters are filter feeders, so anything that’s in the water gets incorporated into their systems. This means oysters can clear the water of certain kinds of pollution, including excess nutrients and organic particles. But they can also pick up toxic contaminants and disease organisms and pass them on to diners. For oysters to be harvested for human consumption, extremely high water quality standards must be met.
Pickleweed still awaits its final water quality certification from state regulatory agencies. Chamberland hopes in a couple of months the farm will be registered and community members will be able to harvest and eat the bounty they’ve been working to produce.
Many bays where oyster farming traditionally occurs have a history of water pollution. Pollution comes from a variety of sources related to human activity – nearby factories and food processors, livestock, and sewage from urban areas, for example. Run-off from these activities often contains harmful bacteria or pathogens.
In the early 2000s, commercial oyster farming was prohibited in many of the bays along the Puget Sound, a long time source of oysters near Seattle, because the water was too polluted. That’s when the first community oyster farms appeared as part of an effort, led by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, to motivate individuals and governments to better monitor and protect water quality in the bays.
“The idea was that by getting people out in the bay and exposed to it, people would talk it up and you’d have more advocacy for cleaning up the bay,” said Geoff Menzies, the farm manager at Drayton Harbor, the fund’s oldest farm.
The fund’s efforts have proven successful. Its three community oyster farms serve as rallying points for local people and organizations to advocate for more stringent water quality monitoring and septic system regulations from the government as well as become involved in and support water circulation and pollution source tracking projects.
“Because of all the work that everybody’s done over the last 11 or 12 years, the areas that we grow our oysters in is open,” said Mark Fischer, the project manager at Henderson Inlet, another one of the Fund’s farms. Both Menzies and Fischer hope to continue getting areas of their respective bays open for farming and expect the oyster farms remain a strong force for community support.
Chamberland’s farm was inspired by a controversy surrounding the environmental impact of Drake’s Bay Oyster Co., also in Marin County. Drake’s Bay, one of the largest oyster farms in California, is located within Point Reye’s National Seashore, a federally protected site. As early as 2007, the National Park Service threatened to not renew the oyster farm’s lease because it wanted to eliminate intrusive human activity and return the area to wilderness. The debate is ongoing, as the lease is up this year.
Chamberland feels that the issue is a misunderstanding of how oysters interact with the surrounding environment. Proponents of oyster farming in polluted waters point out that the bivalves actually make the water cleaner by filtering as they feed. “The best thing I could do was educate people, involve them in the process, have it be hands on, and have them understand by doing.”
Pickleweed has hosted 250 Bay Area students since it started. They come to learn about oyster farming. “Some of the kids have come out on their own because they were so excited,” Chamberland said. There are also currently 25 community members involved, each with his or her own plot to grow and – once the farm is certified – harvest their own oysters to eat. Already, Chamberland said, people are learning about the delicate ecology of the mollusks. Soon, he hopes, they’ll be just as familiar with the taste.