Eight metal cages filled with small oyster seedlings attached to empty clamshells sit in the water directly under the Sandwich Boardwalk.
Although the tiny bivalves are in the process of growing, shellfishermen walking by who see these oysters should not be planning to serve the shellfish up any time soon.
For the past three years, the Natural Resources Department has been experimenting with growing oyster stock here in Sandwich with the intention of opening up a nursery at some point so that oysters can be added to the list of shellfish that can be harvested during the winter season.
“Right now this is more of a hobby for us or a labor of love,” Natural Resources Assistant Director David J. DeConto said.
“The first year was really bad. We didn’t get a good set. We also tried growing the oysters by putting them in floating bags in the creek. That did not work out well,” Mr. DeConto said.
He said after each growing season, he talks with officials from other towns to compare their oyster survival rates. He said the numbers tell him whether there were bad batches or whether it was the process that he used to grow the oysters or even the location where they were placed.
“The past few years, we have had some luck with the survival rate but we don’t have nearly enough stock to open the shellfish beds up to oysters,” he said.
Mr. DeConto said growing oysters is a delicate and time-consuming process and it can take up to four years for seedlings to mature and become large enough to be harvested.
The process in Sandwich began with purchasing 100 bags filled with small seedlings, which came from a aquaculture resource center in Dennis. Each seedling, or spat, is about the size of a pencil eraser and attached to previously harvested oyster or clam shells.
“The seedlings are not even bivalves at this point,” Mr. DeConto said.
The shells with the attached seedlings are placed inside tightly-woven mesh bags, which keep out predators such as crabs. The mesh bags are then placed inside cages which are set into the water.
At the beginning of July, Mr. DeConto placed eight seedling-filled cages in the water at the Jarvesville end of the boardwalk. It is near, but not directly underneath, the section where beachgoers jump into the creek.
Once the seedlings, which double in size on a daily basis, are big enough to withstand attacks from predators, the bags are taken out of the cages and the oysters are removed from the bags and dropped back into the water where the shellfish bury themselves into the sand. Mr. DeConto said the seedlings that are currently in the cages should be ready to be removed from their mesh bags sometime in September.
He said it will take another two to three years for the oysters that survive this first phase of the process to be large enough to be harvested. And while 100 bags of seedlings sounds like a lot of oysters, he said it is not.
“Even if every oyster spat that we are growing right now survived, in another four years, we would only have enough oyster stock for each of the licensed fishermen to harvest about half a dozen,” Mr. DeConto said.
“Growing oysters isn’t easy. The seaweed needs to be removed from the cages to make sure that the oysters are getting a good flow of water. As they grow, you need to check the bags to make sure the oysters have enough room and are not crowding one another out. Growing oysters is very much like farming or gardening,” he said.
He said the only way to make it viable to add oysters to the variety of shellfish that can be harvested from local shellfish beds is to open a nursery.
The nursery would be located in a defined area of water and the oysters would be grown there. Over time, the oysters would begin reproducing on their own and the stock would become plentiful enough to make it worthwhile for fishermen to go out four Sundays during the shellfishing season to collect them.
Opening a nursery would also require the town getting a permit from the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries and that could take some time to complete.
“I’m not sure how long that process would take. The state could call for more sanitary surveys. You’re asking the state for permission to grow shellfish in an area that was previously closed off. We would have to prove to the state why it is now safe and show that we have a plan of how it will be opened up to the public,” he said.
Mr. DeConto said he knows that fishermen are eager to see oysters added to the list of shellfish that can be picked.
Robert J. George a Sandwich firefighter and an avid fisherman said there is a difference between raking for quahogs and harvesting oysters.
“The oysters lay right on top of the mud. You just place a glass bottomed box on top of the water to look for them. When you see the oysters, you just pick them up with a dip net,” he said.
Mr. George said with no oyster stock available in Sandwich, he heads out to the waters in Monument Beach in Bourne or to Barnstable for his oysters.
“I would be happy to be able to pick oysters here in Sandwich,” he said.
While Mr. DeConto said it could be as many as five years before the town could be in a position to allow oyster picking, he said the work he is doing now with growing seedlings is important.
“We are gathering information on where and how the oysters can grow and that is all valuable information. At some point, we will get the ability and the money to take it to the next level,” Mr. DeConto said.