With restaurants closed, oyster biz on pause

04/22/2020

Aquaculture is permitted to continue under the state shelter order, but local farmers are wondering what will happen to the millions of oysters growing in Tomales Bay, considering that restaurants—the main shellfish market—are either closed or sticking to foods that are easier for take-out. 

“We have no business,” said Terry Sawyer, the co-owner of Hog Island Oyster Company, the biggest oyster grower on the bay. “For anybody that’s dealing with a customer service business, customers are being told to shelter in place and to social distance. They are only needing to go to the grocery store, or get what’s already prepared at a restaurant curbside. That’s what caused us to close our doors. We can’t have our staff all together anyhow.”

Hog Island has furloughed 90 percent of its 300 employees, and closed or greatly reduced operations at the company’s five restaurants. The employees still working are keeping up basic operations on the farm, at the hatchery in Humboldt Bay, and for a delivery service operating out of the company’s Larkspur restaurant. Some are also continuing retail operations during restricted hours at both the Napa restaurant and at the farm in Marshall. 

Demand has not stopped altogether. Mr. Sawyer said he’s selling at about 20 percent of what he would typically. With 160 acres leased on the bay, Hog Island typically sells 5 million oysters and Manilla clams each year. 

Furloughed employees continue to receive health benefits, and Mr. Sawyer updates everyone weekly on the state of the company. Those with seniority kept working, though often with reduced pay and changed responsibilities; some previously in managerial roles headed out to the farm. With families dependent on the multi-faceted business, “I feel a really big responsibility,” he said. 

Oysters are sown in the spring and fall, with an expected harvest two years later. It typically takes a year and a half to grow an oyster to its smallest marketable size. Mr. Sawyer said it’s hard to know how much to sow this spring with so much uncertainty about the future. Still, staff have continued planting, following social distancing guidelines as they navigate boating and equipment on the bay. 

The circumstances are similar for the bay’s other farmers. 

Tomales Bay Oyster Company has furloughed half its staff, and the Marshall Store, the farm’s sister restaurant, is closed. Heidi Gregory, the oyster farm’s manager, said they continue to sell to local restaurants at a slowed pace. Sales are at winter levels, she said. 

With the halved crew, the spring’s planting is taking twice as long. 

“You are doing everything by hand: you put 300 oysters in each bag, clamp it up, put it in the boat, tie it down and attach it to the lines. Usually, we could plant 200,000 in a day but right now, we are doing about 130,000 per week. With harvesting, it’s the same thing: without a full crew, we are getting just half the work done,” she said. 

Ms. Gregory, who is helming a company that has been in operation for 111 years, remained positive. “What we are planting right now is for 2022 or 2023. There’s hope: we are looking toward the future. That’s part of what we do as human beings. That’s part of our survival,” she said. 

Both businesses have applied for financial assistance. 

Mr. Sawyer said Hog Island had been approved for a small business loan, which would go toward ongoing operation expenses. He has also applied for payroll assistance but has yet to see the monies.

The United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are responsible for determining how the federal stimulus funds will be doled out for fisheries and aquaculture. There is $300 million allocated for those sectors.

Ms. Gregory said the company had not yet received loans or payroll assistance, but that she had “applied for everything.” 

As for the oysters now ready for harvest, they will just keep growing, Mr. Sawyer said. Though smaller oysters hold the best price value, larger oysters are marketable, but taste better cooked. 

Overall, aquaculture in Marin accounts for 5 percent of the gross value of all agricultural production, which at last count in 2018 amounted to $94, 121, 000. 

The issues faced by the companies are shared by West Coast growers. Margaret Pilero, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said, “They are all impacted. Most of the shellfish grown in this country is consumed in restaurants: it’s a high-value product that people are generally not comfortable making at home.”

She added that many West Coast growers have been impacted for months, after their markets in Asia slowed before Covid-19 reached the U.S. 

A third local company, Drakes Bay Oyster Company, is moving no product at all.

Drakes Bay no longer operates in the Point Reyes National Seashore after an extensive legal battle with the National Park Service, but it sells oysters shipped from a farm in Baja California. 

Typically, the company sells to local restaurants. Manager Loretta Murphy said now they are unable to move enough product to warrant the shipping cost from Baja; all three local employees have stopped working while those on the farm continue only basic operations. 

Ms. Murphy said she understood why many restaurants, resigned to take-out service, had nixed oysters from the menu. “It’s a high-volatility product: the shelf-life is short,” she said.

Yet, she added, “The irony is that oysters are exactly what we should be eating right now.”

Oysters have a high zinc content. According to the National Institutes of Health, one medium oyster provides around 100 percent of recommended daily intake of zinc.

“You can’t find zinc on the shelves at the pharmacy or the grocery store. It’s a huge immune system booster, helping you to keep from getting colds or viruses,” Ms. Murphy said.

For Mr. Sawyer, the future of selling oysters is a great unknown. 

“We are a communal society,” he said. “We do things socially. We eat communally. How do you design the layout, determine how people go into a restaurant?” he asked. “I lay awake at night and think about what they will look like.”

 

Oysters from local growers can be found at Saltwater, the Station House, Café Reyes and the Palace Market, and can be ordered directly from Hog Island or Tomales Bay Oyster Company