W
hen I first met Abigail Carroll, she was bent over a modified floating dock, sweating in the early afternoon sun. Thousands of baby oysters, about a centimeter long, called spat, sat submerged underneath her in mesh containers where pumps circulated water throughout the nursery. Wearing a faded teal hat that read “Nonesuch Oysters”, she watched as one of her workers, a local clammer named Will whom she brought on for the summer, used zip ties to secure the power cables running down the dock and to the pump.

Until seven years ago, Carroll was a day-trader living in Paris, writing and drinking wine with her boyfriend, a French count. But things changed and she found herself back in the US, drawing up a business plan for a client who wanted to start an oyster farm and cash in on the current boom in oyster sales. After being too trusting with some loans she gave out, and failing to “cross her t’s and dot her i’s,” Carroll suddenly found that she herself was the owner of Nonesuch Oysters, a farm in Scarborough, Maine. Then, as was her demeanor that afternoon, she just rolled with it: she spoke to everyone who could tell her about oysters and hired locals who knew more. She was unashamed to be uninformed.

Even as she fixed equipment on a dock in southeast Maine, she was, by her own admission, out of her element. Will was one in a team of locals she hired to help with the farm’s equipment, something she still hasn’t fully mastered. “When it comes to oysters,” she said, tiptoeing into a flat bottom workboat, “the farming is sort of a plumbing problem.” But when it comes to the oysters themselves, Carroll, who was quick to adapt and learn as much as she possibly could, is excelling, and she’s not alone.

“In the last five years there’s been a doubling of oyster production on the East Coast, a decline in the Gulf and steady production on the West Coast.”

When Carroll, who is 45 and “old enough to know better,” fell into the farm, she also unintentionally became part of a renaissance. According to Bob Rheault of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, a trade organization representing over 1,000 shellfish farmers along the East Coast, oyster production has doubled on the East Coast, declined in the Gulf and remained steady on the West Coast. “The price climbs one to three percent a year,” he said, “which tells me demand is growing faster. Every farm I talk to is hiring to try to increase production.”

Just a few years after her sudden career change, Carroll’s oysters found their way into the Grand Central Oyster Bar in NYC, alongside dozens of big-name farms. On my visit she was saving two particularly photogenic examples of her oysters — which develop a striking green hue the year before she sends them to market — to ship to Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters, a seminal text on the shellfish. Jacobsen wants to photograph them his upcoming book, The Essential Oyster. “Most new oyster growers contact me so I’ll add them to Oysterater and Oysterguide, which have become kind of the clearinghouse for info on oysters,” said Jacobsen, referring to the sites he maintains. “I was very impressed with the flavor of Abigail’s oysters, as well as her interest in the sustainability and community.”

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T
he nursery secured and powered on, I sat with Carroll in the “Oystour”, a Carolina skiff and one of three flat-bottom work boats at the farm, as Will, an aspiring novelist, his toes visible through a pair of worn-out Converse All-Stars, finally got the engine to turn over. We set off on the Nonesuch, a 25-mile-long freshwater river that collides with the mouth of the salty Saco Bay at Pine Point Fisherman’s Co-Op, where Carroll leases six and a half acres of the river for her oysters. Behind us, a trail of freshwater churned with the ocean water as we set off to the northeast.

Carroll owes much of the success of her oysters to these waters. The dramatic increase of oystering on the East Coast is the result of a convergence of multiple factors, all of them based in water. Rheault cites the Clean Water Act as the major legislation that allowed oysters, which as filter feeders are entirely dependent on the quality of their water for taste and survival, to flourish. Just as the renaissance was growing, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Cost in 2005; then came oil from the BP spill in 2010. After the spill, state officials opened the gates at the Bayou Lamoque freshwater diversion in Plaquemines Parish, to use Mississippi River water to push oil away from the wetlands. “By letting the river flush [the wetlands] out, the sweet spot where the oysters set moved,” said Rheault. These public grounds, which used to be seed stock for Louisiana industry, were decimated.

The dramatic increase of oystering on the East Coast is the result of a convergence of multiple factors, all of them based in water.

“Nothing I can think of is so directly impacted by its immediate universe,” Carroll told me as the Nonesuch sprayed up over the front of the skiff. “When you drove down from Portland, you drove through a big salt marsh, and all of that is mixing with the grassy freshwater,” she said, pointing north. “In an estuary like this you’ve got a combination of fresh…and salt water, and the salt water tends to be on the bottom, so we like to finish them on the bottom.” This is called bottom-planting, in which, after about two years of rapid growth in the nursery and floating bags in the river, the oysters are thrown onto the bottom of the river for their final year of maturation. Jacobsen says this creates a far superior oyster to a floating one, especially in terms of shell strength. “They grow too fast at the top of the water column. They need to be slowed down a little, and toughened up down in the mud.”

A Nonesuch oyster at 2 and 3 years old.

A Nonesuch oyster at two years old and three years old.

Oyster farming is shockingly simple. Most farmers buy oyster seed from a hatchery for around $5 to $10 per thousand seeds, which are typically 1.5mm to 2mm in size. The bigger the seed, the more expensive — but the less attrition there will be during its life cycle. The farmer’s job is to protect the seeds from predators and pollutants and to ensure the tiny seeds don’t wash away. Meanwhile, farmers must pass as much nutrient- and algae-rich water through the filter feeders’ gills as possible to stimulate growth. (This process is hugely dependent on temperature; when the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, feeding effectively ceases, which is why the best time to eat an oyster is in the fall, at the end of its yearly growth cycle.) Once the seed reaches 10mm to 15mm, it moves into the grow-out phase and is placed in floating bags. At the end of two or three growth cycles, once the oyster reaches three inches — the standard size for sale — Carroll takes it to market, where, depending on the farm and size, oysters can fetch $0.50 to $0.75 a piece. The next day, they’ll show up on restaurant menus for double or quadruple that price.

As the supply of oysters concentrated on the East Coast, demand also surged. Increasingly, consumers have begun to demand more local produce and more transparency in farming practices. “People want foods that are closely tied to place and lifestyle — that couldn’t have come out of a factory anywhere — and oysters are more closely linked to the place they grew than any other food,” said Jacobsen. “[Oysters] are about as authentic as it gets.” This authenticity has the rare privilege of permeating all classes: high-end restaurants charge $4 a piece for foodies; bars trying to get patrons in the door set out slate signs chalked with dollar oysters and pitchers of beer.

T
he boat cut out to a bend in the river where Carroll’s floating bags hold oysters during their second year. The bags were strung together on lines of thick rope, the lines fastened on either side of the river like bumpers at a bowling alley. As Will maneuvered the boat up to check the bags for invasive mussels and unwanted barnacles and then to flip them for an even grow, Carroll explained the equipment. Relative to other farming practices, the barriers to entry for oyster farmers are small. Carroll leases only a small portion of the river, and her equipment is mostly repurposed: prefab docks, PVC pipping, mesh containers, fiberglass boats bought secondhand. The real cost is the work, which is a constant battle to protect the delicate oysters from the elements and from one shellfish being eaten by another.

“Our best year was 70,000 or 80,000 oysters to market,” she said. “And then the last two winters have been just completely devastating, and everything got iced in and we lost shit-loads of bags. So that was a nightmare.” This year she’ll only sell about 500 oysters in order to keep inventory for the coming years because, for selling to oyster bars, reliability on filling orders is vital.

Carroll’s equipment is mostly repurposed: prefab docks, PVC pipping, mesh containers, fiberglass boats bought secondhand. The real cost is the work, which is a constant battle to protect the delicate oysters.

The extremes of the last two winters turned Carroll’s stretch of the Nonesuch into slush, she says, with small icebergs passing through and breaking lines or killing oysters, which can’t survive on the surface in below-freezing temperatures. In the three years it takes for her oysters to mature, Carroll deals with it all. During the first year, there’s high attrition rates for her spat, which, she says, die for seemingly no reason. The second-year oysters must battle with invasive mussels, which suffocate them of their food supply. Then, in the third year, crabs and strong currents kill or displace the oysters as they finish on the bottom.

“But everybody who’s in this, all the people in the industry keep telling me, ‘Hey it took us five years and things got better,’” she said as we turned the boat around and headed back to the dock. “So we are optimistic.”

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B
ack on the dock, Carroll brought up some samples to try. Straight from the river, they were the freshest oysters available. The brininess of the water flashed over my tongue for a second before giving way to a subtle sweetness of the meat. No pieces of shell or sand, no lemon or cocktail sauce, just three years of struggle for survival of oyster and farm.

“Maine oysters are bright. The granitic soil gives them a taste of Sauvignon Blanc wine,” said Rheault. “It’s a great oyster that sort of smacks you in the face.”

Last winter, Carroll spent the entire season calling everyone she could about her freezing oysters. This winter she’ll sink her oysters below the surface of the Nonesuch where the water is warmer, and next spring she’ll start with bigger, more mature spat for a more reliable harvest. These are investments in the future of oystering, which shows no sign of cooling in popularity. Along with being incredibly healthy, said Jacobsen, most experts believe that, in a future where sustainability of food is king, farmed shellfish will be a pillar of most diets.

Long term, Carroll hopes one day to breed her own oysters. “When you grow your own spat you end up getting oysters that are really well designed for your particular ecosystem, and every ecosystem is totally different,” she said. And on the Nonesuch, though Carroll’s ecosystem is only about five football fields in size, it’s become her new life’s work.