After Oysters in New England

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It’s 4:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday in June and Chris and Nat Bryant have just finished a day of work. Rather than head home for the night, the brothers drive their trucks two driveways up the road into a dock-side parking lot and pull on their waterproof overalls. It’s oysters they are after. 

Story and Photography by Tim Briggs

oyster cages floating in the bay in the bay

Chris and Nat are part of a growing industry in New England: shellfish aquaculture. Specifically, they grow oysters. Since 2012, the Bryant Brothers Shellfish company has made its home in Job’s Cove in the outer harbor of Marion, Massachusetts, a small town close to New Bedford at the base of Cape Cod.

The Bryants grew up in nearby Mattapoisett, but spent much of their time in Marion visiting friends and Marion’s sandy beaches. Now, Chris lives in Marion and Nat in Westport, which is a short drive away. Both work in Marion at Burr Brothers Boat Yard, Chris as the Yard Superintendent and Nate in Boat Sales. Though the brothers had always worked with the ocean, Chris and Nat got their start in aquaculture through another brother, Benjamin. Benjamin had been working with the Buzzards Bay Coalition, an organization that worked to prove that reintroducing oysters could help clean up the polluted bay.

brothers shucking oysters

Fighting for their place

Setting up shop in Marion wasn’t easy for the Bryants, as many locals who lived on Job’s Cove fiercely opposed the farm’s placement and took the issue to court.

Opponents of the farm contended that the operation hindered their rights as owners of the shoreline to access the water. For instance, they claimed that the farm would pose a navigational hazard to sailboats seeking harbor in the cove, which the Bryants have never seen a sailboat enter. They also claimed that the farming process would create a racket, which is far from the truth. The Bryants putter around in a small skiff whose engine spends most of its time turned off as they work among the cages. Finally, local opponents lamented that the farm would be an eyesore and harm their views, or that the farm would be dangerous due to disease and foul the harbor’s water, reality has proven this to be incorrect.

In the face of this opposition, the Bryants say “you have to be prepared for people trying to kick you out,” and many certainly tried. But the Bryants weren’t alone in fighting for the farm — others stepped up to bat. Earl Briggs, a long-term Job’s cove resident, waterman, and oyster lover, became their sole neighbor advocate in the adjacent neighborhood. Michael Moore, another Marion resident and the director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, also stepped in to fight for the oyster farm. But their biggest help may have been the damaged ecosystem that needed their help.

Getting started

The town of Marion sits on the edge of Buzzards Bay, a waterway with a history of pollution and mistreated waste, mainly due to activity in nearby New Bedford. Formerly one of the most important whaling ports in the world, New Bedford remains a source of legacy pollution due to waste that entered the water in its heyday. Working towards a brighter future, the Buzzards Bay Coalition has sought to improve the waters they are named for more than 30 years through support of science and advocacy, protection of critical watershed areas, and community engagement. It was from them that the Bryants got their inspiration for the farm.

The Bryant brothers then got a leg up from Biologist Dr. Dale Leavitt, a professor at Roger Williams, who they described as “a good guy who can cut through the BS.” Dr. Leavitt has taught Applied Shellfish Farming, a course at Roger Williams, for close to twenty years. The course is now even offered online. Chris Bryant remarked that “while a small percentage of his class end up oysterman, I don’t know an oysterman who didn’t take his class.” Dr. Leavitt’s class teaches not only the relevant shellfish biology and farming practices, but also covers the intricacies of running a shellfish farming business. Years after taking the class, the Bryants regularly keep in contact with Dr. Leavitt, who is always willing to talk oysters.

Armed with knowledge from the Buzzards Bay Coalition and Dr. Leavitt, the Bryants fought for their farm. Contrary to what their opponents said, oyster farms can be incredibly beneficial for the environments they inhabit. Oyster populations on the East Coast have declined precipitously in the last two hundred years. As they’ve disappeared, so have a variety of ecosystem services, or values that people derive directly or indirectly from the way an ecosystem functions. Oyster farms are one way to kick-start a damaged ecosystem and reintroduce oysters.

Oysters with shucking knife

The value of an oyster

The primary ecosystem service of oysters is derived from their feeding. Oysters are filter feeders, sucking in water through their gills and consuming the particles suspended in the water. Compared to other bivalves, oysters are extremely efficient filter feeders; at historical population levels, oysters once filtered the entire Chesapeake Bay every three to six days. Today, it takes three hundred and twenty-five days.

One of the most important pollutants that oysters filter out of the ecosystem is excess nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of the main contaminants in estuaries, which are mixed salt and freshwater waterways where rivers meet the sea and often an environment where oysters thrive. High nitrogen levels lead to a phenomenon known as eutrophication, where huge blooms of plankton boom and bust. This causes the bacteria that consume the dead plankton to use up all the oxygen in the water as their numbers explode. The fatal result is what is known as a ‘dead zone.’ Organisms that can’t move house, such as oysters that are permanently attached to their footing, often die.

The farm today

Two years after they started their fight for a farm, the Bryants were granted their license. That was in 2012. Five years later, the Bryant brothers are well aware of the oysters’ importance to the Bay, and have seen the oysters’ benefits in Job’s Cove. Since the Bryants began, oysters growing in their cages have reproduced, seeding the natural population on the rocks nearby. Because of them, the natural population of oysters in the cove is making a comeback. The water in Job’s Cove is cleaner, and other species have noticed. Shrimp populations were the first to increase; the Bryants noticed them in their cages in large numbers after the first year. In each of the following years, an old tenant of the cove moved back in. Scup appeared in greater numbers first, followed by perch, and most recently, striped bass.

At time of writing, the farm held 48,000 adult oysters, the first adults ready to harvest from 300,000 seed over the previous year. About 50% of the seed the Bryants ‘plant’ will grow to adult size. In “hunting” season, when oysters are harvested and brought in to be sold, the Bryants can process 1,800 oysters per week. In late June, the Bryants received a shipment of another 300,000 seed which will hopefully grow the next generation of their Sippican Oysters, which they describe as briny with a sweet finish.

For the Bryants, it’s indisputable that action needed to be taken to clean up Buzzards Bay. Through their oyster farm they’ve been able to help do that. Today, they’re looking to expand, and are facing another round of opposition. It’s clear that in their home in Job’s Cove, the Bryants’ have helped bring life back into a hurting ecosystem. Bryant Brothers Shellfish is a success story of science, conservation, and industry. Responsible oyster farming has the potential to kickstart the cleaning of harbors and bays as well as strengthen local species, populations, and ecosystems that have otherwise experienced decline and damage over human occupation.

According to the Bryants, these days there is less hostility towards the oyster farm in Job’s Cove. “Now that we’re live, people who don’t remember the battles will come over with kayaks and we’ll open up some oysters. They’re curious what we’re doing. I think we’ve been pretty good neighbors”

tim briggs headshotTim started photography at age 12 in a garden in California with his aunt’s camera, riding around on an old bike, snapping photos of flowers.

Around the same time, Tim was certified as a PADI Open Water diver.

Over the years, ocean conservation and underwater photography have become his focus. 

Tim is a student at Northeastern University studying Marine Biology with a minor in photography.

Tim is currently working at Environmental Defense Fund as an Ocean Communications intern based in San Francisco.

In 2017, Tim was chosen as a Grand Prize winner as part of Volcom’s #Thisfirst contest.

See Tim’s work on Sound of Boston and Windy Films

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