With Restaurants Shuttered, Oyster Farmers Face Market Collapse
Owners of Walrus and Carpenter Oysters and Saltbox Sea Farm diversify their offerings and try to stay positive as oyster sales have declined significantly during pandemic
May 10, 2020
Oysters are a resilient species with ragged shells that will cut your hands when you try to pry them open, and adaptable insides that change from male to female and back to reproduce. They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years, popping up in the Triassic period; they have survived human gluttony — in the 1800s, New Yorkers ate about 600 oysters per person every year — and, more recently, environmental degradation. Now, they and the people who farm them are facing a challenge they didn’t foresee: the coronavirus pandemic.
Of oysters, Roger Williams wrote, “This the English call hens, a little thick shell fish which the Indians wade deep and dive for.”
Valued more for their shells, which were used to make lime, in the early 1700s they were often chucked into kilns whole. By 1734, Rhode Island outlawed the practice, and people began harvesting them from estuaries and salt ponds for eating.
They soon realized what they had been missing out on, and developed a voracious appetite for the briny bivalve, so much so that by 1766 our predecessors’ hunger had to be checked, and a statute was instituted restricting harvesting to protect them.
Then, in 1798, the first oyster farm in Rhode Island was created, and the Ocean State’s aquaculture heritage was born — though it faced troubled waters.
“The Industrial Revolution and overfishing caused habitat change, silted all the rivers and polluted them, and that’s partially why that industry collapsed,” said Jules Opton-Himmel, co-founder and owner of Narragansett-based Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, which has farms in Jamestown and Charlestown. “And then specifically in Rhode Island, after World War I or II, a lot of people came back and were looking for work, so they started clamming, and there was a clash between the companies that owned and leased the area and individuals that wanted to clam. Then, I guess they dissolved all of those leases and it became more of a wild clam fishery than a cultured oyster fishery.”
Since then, things have changed drastically for the better. In 2017, there were nearly 300 acres in Rhode Island being used to cultivate oysters, producing more than $5.7 million in shellfish product.
The resilient little oyster fended off hungry maws, silt that clogged their beds, the birth of the Industrial Revolution, and polluted waterways to become a large part of Rhode Island’s burgeoning aquaculture industry.
What no one expected was a pandemic.
East Coast Shellfish Growers Association (ECSGA) executive director Robert Rheault entered the industry when oyster farming was just starting to re-emerge. He opened Moonstone Oysters in Narragansett in 1986. Since then, he has seen the industry go through its share of ups and downs, from algal blooms to 9/11. But the current coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the shellfish industry is what’s keeping him up at night.
“Around 90 percent of oysters are eaten at restaurants,” Rheault said. “When we closed restaurants, we essentially froze the shellfish markets.”
For Opton-Himmel, that number is closer to 100 percent.
“We sell 98 percent of our oysters to restaurants in Rhode Island and New York, and when they closed, our sales dropped by 98 percent. That was certainly eye-opening.”
For Matt Griffin, owner of Saltbox Sea Farm and a research associate at the Center for Economic and Environmental Development at Roger Williams University, what is normally a season of promise and increased sales came to a sudden stop.
“What this season typically brings is getting the whole crew back on the farm, starting to sort through all the product and get ready for the onslaught of growth,” he said. “And then sales generally start to pick up. The nicer the weather gets is when sales increase. But right now, it’s pretty much dried up.”
Like Opton-Himmel, Griffin sells primarily to restaurants and restaurant suppliers.
“I would sell about half of my oysters directly to restaurants, and then the other half would go to wholesalers, and then 95 percent of what I gave to the wholesalers then in turn went to restaurants,” Griffin said. “And that really holds true for the industry in the Northeast. Without the restaurants, the market really has come to a screeching halt.”
To survive, farmers like Griffin and Opton-Himmel are getting creative.
“Short term, we quickly pivoted to try to redirect our sales to home delivery and mail order, and that’s been going pretty well,” Opton-Himmel said. He also has considered starting a vegetable farm to branch out on his product during the off-season.
“We’re seeing the demand for fresh produce and meat during this crisis; it’s in much greater demand than seafood,” he said.
Griffin’s farm already had a side project of environmental consultation, with a focus on shellfish restoration and fisheries science, and he will be allocating more effort in that realm to offset the loss of oyster sales. He also hopes to increase direct-to-consumer sales and deliveries.
But, as Rheault noted, for many farmers the switch to direct-to-consumer sales won’t make the same amount of money their restaurant wholesale business did, since people don’t eat oysters in the same capacity as they eat meat and produce.
“First, people don’t know how to shuck oysters,” he said. “And then there’s the fact that oysters are a happy food, something you enjoy with a drink in hand with friends, not while you’re sitting at home physical distancing.”
Plus, oysters aren’t cheap, and during an economic downturn, they aren’t the first things people stock up on.
“Wild stocks have pretty much been diminished, so we rely on farms, and it happens to be fairly expensive to raise an oyster for the retail market,” Griffin said. “So, that price point’s gone up. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were kind of an everyman’s food and everyman’s snack, and now they’re sort of a luxury item of food.”
If and when restaurants do reopen and peddle oysters once more, Rheault foresees slow sales, which could lead to a collapse of the market price of oysters — a possible death knell to some growers.
“In the middle of the night I find myself worrying about the entire future of our industry if the mandates on social distancing cannot be relaxed soon,” Rheault wrote in a recent ECSGA newsletter. “By mid-summer, there will be a glut of oysters waiting to hit the market when it re-opens. A collapse of market price is seemingly almost inevitable. When clam prices collapsed a few decades ago, we saw about half of the producers throw in the towel.”
But for Griffin and Opton-Himmel, plowing onward and tending to their crop is the only option. There may even be a chance to use oysters that are starting to grow too large to be palatable to consumers to build restoration reefs.
“It’s a little scary, but we’re in this, and we’re not the only industry that’s affected, so we’re trying to stay positive and hunker down,” Griffin said.