“One of my favorite parts of oyster farming, is that I can send my oysters to Nashville and someone who has never even seen the ocean can taste Stones Bay in the merroir,” shared Matthew Schwab as he deftly manned his boat between rows of bobbing white floats.
Merroir – An oyster’s characteristic taste and flavor imparted by its environment. Similar to the “terroir” of wine.
Schwab is the owner and operator of Hold Fast Oysters. He leases 4.2 acres in Stones Bay.* With 200 cages and the future addition of 40 floating cages, his enterprise is small, with a lot of potential for expansion. Currently a one man show, it’s enormous amounts of work and a daily commitment to raise oysters.
*Stones Bay is a body of water located in the New River near Sneads Ferry; not to be confused with the Marine Corps Stone Bay facility, which is also close by.
Sporting a “stay local” t-shirt, tattoos painting his sea weathered arms, Schwab has the laid back attitude that’s so typical of people who love the water.
His boat is docked in the midst of hurricane ruins, by the old Blackbeards restaurant in Sneads Ferry. Decimated by Hurricane Florence, along with the neighboring businesses, what was once a lively area and busy parking lot is now quiet. Piles of debris line the buildings on the waterside. Dock repairs lead to a large work boat, the dock lined with oyster cages that were pulled for cleaning, and the new floating cages that will soon be added to the farm. Licensing for oyster farming is extremely strict and requires several licences, all of which must be renewed annually.
The oyster farm is located about 15 minutes from the dock. Farmers can get a lease for bottom cages or floating cages, both of which Schwab has. Bottom cages sit on the floor where there is less action for the oysters – less sun, oxygen, and food. Floating cages get more sun and oxygen, and more plankton floating by, which makes them grow faster. They grow in a better shape in the floating cages.
Shape and appearance is important when eating oysters on the half shell. While it doesn’t change the taste of the oyster, we all know the cliche that we eat with our eyes first. The sweet spot for chefs seems to be about three inches and definitely without extra organisms growing on the shell.
Getting a lease is no easy task. The water is tested for existing shellfish and submerged aquatic vegetation. There can’t be any already existing on the space to be leased. The lease can’t be in a channel and can’t obstruct public use.
Though Schwab does the daily grunt work, he is well supported by two intelligent beauties, Kimberly and Violet, his wife and daughter. True supporters, they all enjoy raw oysters – even the little one. When Schwab needs to spend time in the water, the girls will come out with him to man the boat while he dives. Intimately acquainted with aquaculture, he studied Marine Biology in college, then followed that degree with boat mechanic school. He took a job at the marina on the Potomac side of the river where he really learned to embrace the term, “hold fast.” Hold fast is a nautical term that means to endure, to bear down, stay the course, and ride it out. That term has been applicable many times in Schwab’s life, making it the perfect name for an unpredictable, often volatile farming endeavor.
Small business ownership isn’t for the faint of heart, and farming oysters is a particularly unpredictable venture. Hurricane Florence ruined so many infrastructures, including the Hold Fast farm. With high quantities of rain, comes excessive runoff, which pollutes the water, harming marine life, including Schwab’s oysters. The North Carolina Shellfish Sanitation Department breaks the water into regions, each region broken down further into sections. Then each section gets measured for the amount of rainfall. Sections are closed when the rainfall exceeds a certain amount. Typically, Schwab’s sections are the last to close and the first to open. In very basic terms, that means his farm sits in very clean water. But even his water wasn’t immune to the effects from the hurricane and rain record and he lost 90% of his oysters in Hurricane Florence.
The location Schwab chose for his farm was clever indeed. Though it wasn’t his first pick, it turned out to be the best spot imaginable. Bordered by Camp Lejeune, the government land creates more security for his farm. Many oyster farmers have been forced away from their leases when homeowner associations band together and bring legal complaints against the farmers, due to the view. Some homeowners don’t think they should have to see a few floating bobbers as part of their million dollar view. The government is less discerning about the views, so instead of mansions, Schwab sees jets and ospreys flying overhead while he works.
Rain pollution isn’t the only danger to oyster farms. Aquaculture is nearly interchangeable with the term agriculture, due to the many similarities. Oyster seeds (basically tiny baby oysters) are purchased from nurseries. Placed in mesh bags and hung in the water, the oysters grow until they are large enough to put into cages. It only takes oysters a maximum of 18 months to reach maturity, and the mortality rate varies, dependent on water temperatures, rainfall, algae, and more. The oysters act as nurseries for small marine life. Eels and blue crab are big fans of the oyster cages too. A stone crab can crush an entire cage of oysters into smithereens, making them a nuisance for farmers. Eels are just slimey and difficult to remove. Schwab has found a dustpan is the perfect tool to remove the slippery creatures.
One thing Schwab hasn’t had to deal with much, is thievery. The cages are incredibly heavy and impossible to steal without the right equipment. Neighboring workers on the water look out for each other and notify him of suspicious behaviors before damage is done. He once found some of his cages knocked open and to the side, as though someone had thought they would try stealing them. But the sharp, heavy cages prove no match for a mere man, and truly require the use of machinery to reel them up.
Fear Marketing and Old Wives Tales
The weathered, bearded farmer becomes animated when discussing oyster farming. Besides fighting the elements, Schwab faces public misconceptions and misinformation. There’s a terrible old wives’ tale which claims you should only eat oysters in months that end in the letter R. To be fair, that was once true. Trains full of oysters would be shipped across the country, leaving a trail of illness by all those who consumed them. The easy solution was to stay away from oysters unless it was cold, generally being months that end with the letter R. Scary right? But then refrigeration was invented in 1834. It’s time to let the myth go.
Oysters spawn during the warm months, a process which changes the texture and makes them less appetizing. Farmed oysters don’t have them problem! Another reason to let the myth go.
EAT THE OYSTERS. All. Year. Long.
Buzz Words: Sustainable and GMO
Wild oyster populations are at a historical low, another reason oyster farming is taking off. Farmed oysters are sterile. They don’t send out sperm or eggs. These sterile oysters are called triploids, meaning it has three sets of chromosomes. It’s important to prevent farmed oysters from spawning. Oysters are runnier when they spawn, making them less desirable to eat. Baby oysters grow on the shells of adult oysters, which means one would be ready to harvest and the other would not. The oyster growth on the shell of existing oysters is also unattractive to a chef’s presentation of oysters on the half shell. Sterile oysters eliminate this problem. Triploids are not genetically modified organisms (GMO). Water temperature changes and pressure cause the chromosome change in the nurseries. Triploids also grow faster, since they are not affected by reproduction.
Sustainable: the other buzz word in agriculture right now. The purpose of sustainable agriculture is to meet the demands of the consumer, without compromising the environment (improving it even), in both the short and long term. Oyster farming is definitely sustainable.
You may have heard whispering about how harmful fisheries are to aquaculture. However, Hold Fast Oysters does more good for the environment than harm. One adult oyster filters 50 gallons of water each day. Farmed oysters are not taken from oyster reefs, but grown from seeds, added to the water, where they provide the aforementioned nurseries for fish, crabs, eels, and more, in addition to their incredible filtering.
In review: oysters are added to the river, grow, filter the water, create nurseries for commercially fished creatures, and are then removed from the water.
Spending your days on the water may sound like a vacation, but the reality is nobody’s idea of a relaxing jaunt.
“It’s remarkably easy when it’s flat out. But when you get 10-15 mph winds, it gets to be a real pain in the rear,” he remarked. Locals know that wind, and subsequent choppy water, is more common that still air and a glassy river. “Sometimes out here, I cuss more than I breathe.”
The daily maintenance is brutal. Pulling up heavy cages to clean the barnacles, maintaining his lines, boat, and crane, screwing stakes five feet into the mud below the water, and other intense aspects of the job have left Schwab lean and muscular, hardened by the sea.
Eat them well. Eat them always. Eat them right.
For quality control (wink, wink) he makes sure to test several oysters each day, year round.
“Mmm, that was good!” he boasts with hearty joy. While all oysters on the East Coast are the exact same species, the taste varies greatly according the water they grow in and the plankton they eat.
When eating oysters, there are several things you should keep in mind. Always ask where the oysters are from. You want to know which waters you’re tasting. Next, take in the appearance – the shape, the color of the oyster, and the texture of the shell.
Being a proper oyster connoisseur, Schwab always tries to taste the first oyster raw and without condiments at restaurants. He appreciates the work the farmer put into them and wants to experience the full flavor of the place the oysters were raised.
As you tip back the oyster, make sure drink in all the juices surrounding the flesh. Taste for salinity, sweetness, texture, cadence, and umami. Umami is the overall flavor of the taste of the oyster.
The oyster craze is strong and demand for raw oysters on the half shell is only increasing. It’s basically a violation to visit Coastal North Carolina without slurping up a tray (or 3!) or local oysters.
If you want to test Schwab’s claim that Hold Fast oysters are the best on the coast, send him an order at firstname.lastname@example.org and order a bushel directly. If you want to enjoy Hold Fast Oysters already prepared, head over to Pinpoint or True Blue restaurants in Wilmington, where the chefs understand the importance of serving their patrons the best oysters there are.
Farmer Schwab is very active on Instagram, especially Instagram stories, and loves to share his oyster farming adventures with the public. You can follow him on Instagram at hold_fast_oyster_co .
Continue Reading About Oysters…
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Oysters are shucking fantastic. hailing from our very own Stump Sound, the lagoon like water between Sneads Ferry and North Topsail Beach.