Thursday, January 30, 2014

Helping shellfish growers succeed: A workshop on best management practices

The nascent Great Bay oyster farm industry has been picking up speed in recent years, growing to eight current farms and garnering the interest of local foodies. Many of these farmers are entirely new to the process, trying to navigate the complexities of starting a new business without a lot of background knowledge that might help streamline some of their operations.

Following on the heels of last autumn’s roundtable discussion about opportunities and challenges for Great Bay oyster farmers, shellfish growers from Maine and N.H. attended a recent discussion about best management practices on shellfish farms. The workshop was held at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth, N.H., on Jan. 28th and was sponsored by UNH Cooperative Extension, N.H. Sea Grant, the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, the N.H. Farm Service Agency and Extension Risk Management Education — Northeast Center. Researchers, extension specialists and industry experts presented information to the workshop attendees about methods to guide their business plan, minimize their risks and possibly improve their revenues.

Marketing local seafood and telling the story

Charlie French, UNH Cooperative Extension professor, shared the results from his NHSG-funded research on alternative seafood marketing. His research indicated that although consumers place importance on local seafood, simply being local isn’t enough, he said. People are only willing to pay a premium if the seafood is of high quality. That means taking utmost care to keep the shellfish cold from harvest to point of sale.

Some of the shellfish growers in the audience noted that they sell their product at farmer’s markets. French said that while they might not sell a lot of volume at that venue, farmer’s markets are great places to generate a buzz about their product and learning who grows their food. He encouraged the growers to tell their story, let the public get to know the farmers and their food, and collaborate with other people and organizations who want to promote that story.

Shellfish growers forming a united front

The last time these shellfish growers met, there was discussion about the potential to form a co-op. Michael Chambers, NHSG/UNHCE  marine aquaculture specialist, asked if the growers had discussed this any further in the time since that meeting. A few of the growers spoke up, saying they felt that a co-op was unnecessary, but that a loosely formed organization would be beneficial to help promote Great Bay oysters, present a unified front, work together to lobby for change in shellfish management decisions, but yet retain individual control over each of their companies and products.

Crop Disaster Assistance

One major decision the shellfish growers face is whether or not to apply for crop insurance. Linda Grames, program specialist from the N.H. Farm Service Agency spoke to the group about the USDA noninsured crop disaster assistance program. Although oysters aren’t technically covered under regular crop insurance, this program would provide financial assistance to shellfish growers who experience a significant loss of their crop due to weather-related events, including long spells of bitter cold weather and ice that wreak havoc on oyster farms. Disease outbreaks like Dermo and MSX would have to be linked to a weather event, such as drought, in order for oyster farmers to receive reimbursement for crop loss.

Insurance for crop revenues

Michael Sciabarrasi, UNHCE agricultural business management specialist, discussed adjusted gross revenue policies — a type of insurance that protects against variability in crop revenues due to natural disasters or market fluctuations. Because this program requires five years of production, most of the nascent Great Bay oyster farms do not currently qualify. However, Sciabarrassi noted that this type of insurance might be a worthwhile investment in the future. Managing risks will lessen the impact of catastrophic losses and reduce income variability, he said.

Farm management plans and best management practices

Three representatives from the East Coast ShellfishGrowers Association spoke to the workshop attendees about the importance of developing farm management plans and adhering to best management practices (BMPs). Gef Flimlin, Kathy Rhodes and Sandy MacFarlane of ECSGA explained that BMPs are a basic code of conduct — in the case of shellfish growers, BMPs could include items such as check your gear often, clean up any fuel spills you cause, use appropriate methods to control biofouling on the gear, help educate the public, and be good neighbors to other growers and nearby landowners. The ECSGA has already established a list of BMPs that local growers can adopt. These BMPs offer another advantage: they indicate the appropriate steps to take if a grower runs into trouble with a Vibrio outbreak or predator issues on their farms. If a grower is following the BMPs for the entire East Coast shellfish industry, it will demonstrate that they are operating their business in a responsible manner, Rhodes said.

MacFarlane spoke to the attendees about developing a farm management plan — an operating manual that documents how growers run their farm practices. A farm plan includes BMPs in its operations manual and helps minimize growers risks, placing them in a better position to receive funds through loans or crop insurance. It will also demonstrate to consumers that the shellfish grower is committed to environmental stewardship and a healthy product.

Thorough record-keeping is imperative

Throughout their presentation, the ECSGA representatives stressed the importance of good record-keeping. Flimlin suggested that the growers should purchase a temperature logger to place on their equipment so they can keep track of the water temperatures throughout the year. Using a secchi disk can help determine water clarity, he said, and it’s a good idea to record, either in written format or voice recording on a smartphone, the general conditions of their gear, how many juvenile oysters they stocked and anything else the growers notice while on their site and checking their crop. 

For more information about these topics, please contact Michael Chambers at

Monday, January 13, 2014

A focus on local, sustainable food at Rogues Experience

The Rogues Experience at Redhook Brewery on Jan. 11th provided an evening of seafood tastings and a screening of a new television show dedicated to local food.

Above: Local lobstermen, oyster farmers, and representatives from N.H. Fresh and Local Seafood and Taylor Lobster were at the Rogues Experience event to help educate the public about local seafood.

The upcoming culinary adventure travel show, Rogues on the Road, features locally produced/caught/foraged food and drinks. The two hosts of the show, Matt Frohman and Rich Marshall, introduced their pilot episode that was filmed in Banff, Alberta, Canada, followed by footage featuring N.H. lobstermen and oyster farmers that may become a future episode.

The event provided an opportunity for attendees to sample food and drinks featuring a Seacoast ingredient: softshell lobster. Redhook Brewery provided their Black Lobstah Lager, made from locally sourced softshell lobsters and oysters. Chefs from nine restaurants prepared lobster BLTs, risotto, tarts and many other creations to showcase the sweet flavor of softshell lobsters caught near the Seacoast.

Softshell lobsters tend to be easier to prepare for menu items because they lack a hard shell, and many chefs and consumers have indicated that softshell lobsters are more flavorful and succulent than hardshell lobsters.

Softshells are also more abundant than hardshells, particularly in warmer months, but lobstermen receive lower prices for them. Many lobstermen have expressed concern about this, noting that the high costs of fuel and bait coupled with low prices for softshells mean they are barely breaking even financially.

Representatives from Taylor Lobster Company, N.H. Fresh and Local Seafood, Fat Dog Oyster Company and the Seacoast Science Center attended the event to help educate the public about local seafood and healthy marine ecosystems.
For more information about local seafood, please visit

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Growing blue mussels and reducing nutrients in N.H. waters

N.H. fishermen have been actively involved in raising steelhead trout just off the coast from Fort Constitution at the mouth of the Piscataqua River for the past two years. But the trout aren't the only living organism growing in the pens -- sugar kelp and blue mussels, both species that occur naturally in the Gulf of Maine, have been growing on the mooring lines for the trout nets. N.H. Sea Grant marine aquaculture specialist Michael Chambers said the kelp and mussels both help extract nutrients from the river and from the trout in the underwater nets. 

Tiny blue mussels, called “spat,” were collected from the wild and seeded on 4 m lines suspended around the trout cages. As filter feeders, they remove particulate matter and nutrients from the water surrounding the cages and coming in from the river. The mussels were raised to 40-60 mm before they were stocked in modified lobster pots by the seven N.H. fishermen that assist with the daily care and maintenance of the steelhead trout and their cages.


Last October, the fishermen placed the mussels in the lobster pots and moved them to deeper offshore waters to grow during the winter. After six months at sea, the mussels can be harvested and sold to local markets, providing additional revenue to the fishermen who are helping out with this project.