(Editor’s note: The writer’s father, Paul L. Bagnall, has been the Edgartown shellfish constable for 35 years.)
The rain came down on Muscongus Bay Hatchery in Bremen, Maine, at around 7 am as shellfish constable Paul Bagnall met with owner Tonie Simmons to pick up 6.9 million oyster seed to be brought back to Martha’s Vineyard.
The sixth annual drive up into mid-coast Maine took about five hours, with the exchange for the oyster seed happening on June 11; the oyster seed is for municipal shellfish programs for the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, along with 11 commercial growers spread across Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Chilmark. The seed is packaged in wet storage, with moist paper towels covering the seed and placed into plastic bags, which are stored in larger Styrofoam coolers inside cardboard boxes with freeze packs tucked under them.
The Muscongus Bay Hatchery has grown Maine oyster seed for more than 15 years, according to its website. Simmons started her career setting up hatcheries for clients, and decided to build her own.
“For Edgartown, if you care for your seed reasonably, you can expect about an 80 percent survival rate,” Bagnall said. “Last year, the survival rate for Muscongus Bay seed was at 110 percent.”
According to Bagnall, the oyster seed from Muscongus Bay is used at Major’s Cove Farm in Sengekontacket Pond with the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs in order to supplement the seed for the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG). The MVSG has been producing seed since 1978, and Edgartown has been a member since 1986. This is part of the oyster farm propagation program run by the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs shellfish departments.
“I would say almost 90 percent of [last year’s oyster seed] survived and are on the farm and are much bigger growing out,” Dan Martino said in a phone interview with The MV Times.
Martino has run Cottage City Oysters in Oak Bluffs with his brother Greg for the past five years.
According to Martino, the Muscongus Bay hatchery reached out and told them about Bagnall’s personal deliveries to Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and the commercial growers. Three years ago, the Martino brothers asked if their farm could be included in the Maine oyster seed delivery, and Bagnall agreed. Greg and Dan used to get their oyster seed shipped to Martha’s Vineyard through FedEx from Muscongus Bay, and mentioned numerous hatcheries make their seed available for delivery through FedEx or UPS.
The commercial oyster farmers are spread across the Island, with 12 farms in Edgartown, Cottage City Oysters in Oak Bluffs, and two farmers based in Chilmark.
In an MV Times phone interview with Oak Bluffs shellfish constable Charles (“Chuck”) Fisher, he explained that the oyster planting process starts in fine mesh screens, and a lot of work is put into them when they’re small in June. As the months go by, the oysters are cleaned and sorted by pulling them up from the floating upweller (a floating wooden platform with oyster seed submerged in wooden slots).
When the oysters are big enough, they’re moved into deeper water during October and November. This is done to avoid icing. According to Fisher, if Sengekontacket Pond were to freeze, the ice can get encased around the cages, and move the oysters around. The oysters are moved out to deeper water because the ice floats on top of it.
For the winter, the shellfish constables put the oysters into larger mesh bags. These larger bags go into 4- by 4-foot cages with six bags per cage, and around 20 to 25 cages are put out over winter. The maturing oysters stay in deeper water until June to mid-July. The oysters then are taken out to be measured and counted.
Afterward the bigger oysters get directly seeded in the water in Sengekontacket, in areas like the Land Bank at Pecoy Point Preserve on County Road. Each oyster needs to be harvested at 3 inches or larger.
“We think it’s great; the oysters are a good quality, and grow nicely,” Fisher said, referring to the Maine oyster seed.
One new addition Simmons provided with the oyster seed was a sheet of instructions on how to get it started. “It’s something new we’re doing for this year, and will increase the survival rate,” Simmons said, smiling when Bagnall told her the numbers for last year’s rate.