Brian Harman, of the Cape May Salt Oyster Co., feels like his company has dodged a bullet — in this case, one made of ice.
“Doesn’t look like we had much loss,” he said Tuesday as he examined racks of oysters of various sizes in the mud flats off a Delaware Bay beach in Middle Township, about 10 miles north of Cape May. The oyster beds had been covered with thick ice during the recent 12-day severe cold spell, when the shoreline and small creeks froze solid.
He and four workers harvested about 15,000 oysters Tuesday, the second of two weekly harvests — which go on year-round.
His company, part of Atlantic Capes Fisheries Inc., is the biggest oyster farmer on the bay, he said. It sells about 2 million of the shellfish a year. Harman is aquaculture and husbandry manager there.
Aquaculture Extension Program Coordinator Lisa Calvo said oysters go into dormancy in the winter as a survival technique.
“They are not actively feeding and not putting a lot of energy into respiration,” said Calvo, who runs Project PORTS: Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools for Rutgers.
Oysters’ shells close tightly, protecting their internal fluids. This year’s extreme cold could have caused more damage, were it not for the ice that formed over the bay.
“We had very, very low wind chill temperatures,” Calvo said. “Had the ice not been there, and had they been exposed to the air, there would have been more of a threat of freezing.”
But she said there may be increased mortality this spring.
“A lot of time the … hard ice creates such a stress, when they do start to feed again in spring, we might start to see mortality in them,” Calvo said.
Harman said his company only lost one week of harvesting, when the ice made it impossible.
“I know others were shut down for two weeks,” he said.
By Tuesday, the ice had broken up and mostly retreated, although dozens of iceberg-like sections, some the size of one-car garages, remained just off the beach. They have been moving back and forth with the tides and wind, he said.
“The first day after the ice left, we had six or seven racks with bags still on them, bent like a ring or a circle,” Harman said. Others were smashed into pretzel-like forms.
But only a few hundred of the farm’s millions of oysters actually ended up crushed. Most were simply pushed down into the mud and survived.
In December, he and his workers had moved about half of the farm’s oysters farther out into the bay and put them in cages in about 20 feet of water in preparation for winter.
“We take them to deeper water to get them out of this harsh environment,” he said of the intertidal zone where the farm is located for both ease of access for workers and to allow the oysters to be covered by water much of the time, but uncovered for a while each day.
The company moves them every year, but he and his workers have never seen anything like the ice this winter.
“Two years ago we were able to chip through the ice,” said Shaughn Juckett, 25, of Somers Point. He’s a Stockton graduate, with a degree in environmental studies. “But this is the first time we’re seeing ice chunks the size of a truck.”
Co-workers Tim Gallagher, 26, of Linwood, and Melissa Harabedian, 26, of the Villas section of Lower Township, are also Stockton grads in environmental science and marine biology, respectively. Also working with them is Atlantic Cape Community College graduate Jay Rutkowski, 26, of Somers Point.
“I like being outside,” Gallagher said of the appeal of working on an oyster farm.
“It’s about moving and being outside,” agreed Harabedian.
“We have been friends since high school,” said Rutkowski of himself, Gallagher and Juckett, who graduated from Mainland Regional High School in Linwood in 2009.
Rutkowski, also a surf photographer, spent years working at the Crab Trap restaurant in Somers Point, which sells locally raised oysters, he said.
“I saw the restaurant side, and now I’m seeing this side,” he said of oyster farming.
It was recommended for hundreds of years to only eat oysters in months containing an “r” in the name. That meant May through August were off limits. It was for food-safety reasons, because oysters spoiled more easily in hot weather.
Now refrigeration and better food-handling and delivery techniques make it possible to eat them year-round.
But the taste is still best in the fall and early winter, Harman said.
“They store up glycogen in their tissues” in preparation for winter, Harman said. “That makes them sweeter.”