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Cape’s oyster growers struggle to recover from pandemic-related losses – News – capecodtimes.com

WELLFLEET — When Gov. Charlie Baker shut down restaurants and bars in March, Zack Dixon’s world, and that of hundreds of other shellfish farmers in Barnstable County, dropped off a cliff.

“Restaurants are our customers. When they closed in March, our business revenues went to zero,” said Dixon, who co-owns the Holbrook Oyster company with Justin and Jacob Dalby.

Over the past couple of decades, oysters have become the darling of the culinary world and aquaculture has expanded exponentially. Massachusetts landed nearly 8.7 million pounds of oysters, mostly from aquaculture farming, in 2018, worth $28.3 million. The Cape is home to 265 of the 391 licensed growers in the state, cultivating nearly 661 acres, half the state total of 1,203 acres.

When the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association surveyed larger dealers and wholesalers following the shutdown, they found that 98% of the market for oysters had evaporated overnight, said association president Bob Rheault.

”We knew we were inextricably tied to the food service industry, we didn’t realize how tied in we were,” said Rheault. “I don’t think any one of us would have guessed that amount.”

In a March 20 memo from Daniel McKiernan, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, experts representing fishermen and the restaurant and fishing industry estimated that 70% of the seafood they caught or harvested was consumed in restaurants, which are still experiencing a degree of closure. Bars essentially remain closed in Massachusetts and after being restricted for weeks to takeout, restaurants reopened this summer to limited, mainly outdoor, seating.

Dixon said that cut his business in half this year.

The national market wasn’t any better.

Alex Hay, co-owner of the Wellfleet Shellfish Co., a wholesaler and dealer located in Eastham, said 90% of his oyster business was to restaurants.

“Looking at places like Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, New York and Florida, all of those restaurant customers, 60 to 70% of them are still closed,” said Hay. He projects his sales will be roughly 30% of what they are in a normal year.

But oysters keep growing, even if the product isn’t selling. Protective netting and grow bags need to be cleaned of plant growth that could restrict the flow of nutrient laden waters that the shellfish feed on. Oysters must be removed from the bags, separated by size, and rebagged to ensure the even shell growth that diners prefer.

Although it has since lapsed, the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan helped Dixon and others retain employees this summer to do that work. But Cape growers, who typically occupy a couple of acres or less, have to sell off their mature oysters this fall for much-needed cash to buy seed and to make room for next year’s crop. Following a summer of depressed sales, there were a lot of oysters unsold, including ones that were getting too big to be appealing to diners.

Joshua Reitsma, fisheries and aquaculture specialist for the Woods Hole Sea Grant program and Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, surveyed 70 aquaculture businesses who responded to a grant proposal in August and found that for those growers about 2 million oysters were considered too large for restaurants and seafood markets and at least 7 million oysters would remain unsold in the fall.

Hoping to develop a market for these oversized and unused oysters, Reitsma tapped into nearly $2.5 million in national Sea Grant rapid response funding earmarked for the aquaculture industry. The program was intended to help fishermen transition direct sales to customers through community supported agriculture and buy local initiatives, needs assessments and marketing.

Reitsma and Woods Hole Sea Grant received nearly $100,000 from the rapid response fund for a pilot program to find alternatives to restaurant sales for growers. Along with Dixon, Yarmouth oyster grower Michael Dunbar was one of five local aquaculturists who each delivered 1,000 oysters last week to be shucked and frozen in quart containers for distribution to food banks. While it won’t replace restaurant sales, Dunbar has hopes it may help his business now, and beyond COVID-19 restrictions, with the annual problem of what to do with surplus oysters.

“This year was a bit worse than normal, but it always gets a bit slower in the fall,” Dunbar said. “The larger ones, and ones whose shell isn’t perfect, if we could make money off them it would be terrific.”

Unlike Virginia and Maryland, Massachusetts growers are not set up for volume, said Reitsma. Processing facilities are limited and there are few shucking houses north of Maryland. Shucking machines are expensive, said Reitsma. He knew of just four businesses shucking oysters in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island.

Plus, Cape oyster farms average around 2½ acres each in size and are geared toward producing a small, high quality crop of oysters that are appealing to the half-shell business in restaurants.

A grower can sell an oyster to a wholesaler or restaurant for 50 to 60 cents each. The shucked market, for use in stews, stuffing, or as fried oysters, runs between 20 and 30 cents each, Reitsma said.

Hay said COVID depressed prices to around 30 to 40 cents for quality oysters, with some farmers selling as low 20 cents apiece to get some cash flow and make room for seed oysters.

Rheault said that after restaurants closed, many U.S. consumers pivoted away from seafood to beef and chicken because many didn’t know how to cook it. When restaurants did reopen with takeout, oysters, which have a reputation of being hard to open, were not part of that recovery. His shellfish association members tried to find new markets including direct sales online, through farmers markets and roadside stands, even home delivery, with limited success.

“We’re trying to get the USDA to buy 30 million shucked meats and frozen pints to put into food banks … but there’s been no traction,” Rheault said.

Hay’s company fell back on a strategy they’ve come to rely on, holding oysters in refrigeration and selling them off over the winter.

“My heart goes out to businesses who said, ‘I can’t deal with this,’” said Hay. “There’s a lot of permits for sale.”

The Sea Grant money was also being used to investigate what is known as value-added products like premade trays of oysters on the half-shell, prepped with a topping that can be frozen and then heated in an oven to make dishes like oysters Rockefeller.

Dunbar is somewhat optimistic that Cape oysters could become a niche product, since they have name recognition and are sold to markets nationally and internationally.

“I believe we (Cape growers) have a superior product. It will be a little more expensive (than oysters mass-produced for shucking), but if we can get it out to consumers it would be worth it for them,” he said.

Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.

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