two oyster farmers with colorful plastic tubs walk through an oyster farm at low tide

Amidst a changing environment, these oyster farmers see beauty, delicacy in their work

Working with the instinctive motion that comes only with years spent at the job, Jen and Greg pulled gloved hands through metal trays, examining the contents.

Oysters; and some of Massachusetts’ finest, grown in Barnstable’s Great Marsh — a wide expanse tucked into the bicep of Cape Cod’s long peninsula and forming one of Mother Earth’s natural paradises: a glorious protected basin that enjoys 12-foot tides in the summers, washing saltwater and nutrients over these bivalves and infusing them with the richness and flavor that will eventually be described by restaurant staffs: sweetness, brine, creaminess; handheld sips of the sea.

That morning in early October, I had met the two Moon Shoal Oyster farmers on the docks with the sun still low on the milky horizon, a deep blue sky evidence of the warmth that would overcome the mist hovering at the base of the boats in Yarmouth harbor, and along the miles of grasses tinged yellow and orange with the impending fall. 

In the small white skiff that forges their work commute, we cut through the ocean’s glass, across a landscape dotted with a labyrinth of oyster farms, the tops of the trays gleaming above the surface.

The oysters grow beautifully here, yes, but it’s a two-way street: they also keep it beautiful — functioning as natural filters for excessive algae and improving the quality.

“Barnstable one of cleanest harbors and its because of all the oysters here,” Greg said.

“This is the nursery. The hatchery of the ocean.

“It’s worth paying attention and protecting.”

Oyster farmers in the Great Barnstable Marsh.
Greg and Jen selecting oysters to “cull” or sort on the floating barge.
Jen drives the small, white skiff from the Yarmouth Port harbor, out to Moon Shoal’s farm in the Great Barnstable Marsh.

The long rows of floating metal trays, or zapcos, brimmed with oysters sunning in cloudy puddles at low tide. 

These shellfish were destined to be pried open with a crack — their ivory walls exposed, their plump bodies swimming in tiny pools of salty nectar — and served, possibly, with a squeeze of lemon, a touch of vinegar, maybe a cracker. Perhaps an icy glass of white wine would be on hand to wash it all down. Indeed, later, we’d open a few on the boat, still encased within the waves that grew them.

But for the moment, the oysters were still whole, and painted with mud.

They clanked like rocks as Jen and Greg hand-selected those of perfect size from the zapcos — designed to give the oysters strong and smoothly tapering shells by allowing them to shake and quiver in the surf — and tossed them into orange plastic tubs. 

The Great Barnstable Marsh is lined with the metal rows of various oyster farms in the early morning.
Greg shucks a Moon Shoal oyster on the boat.
Jen hand-selects oysters that have reached the ideal shape and side, from the farm’s metal trays.
Greg wades through the low tide in Moon Shoal’s oyster farm. In an hour, these trays will be completely covered by the surf.

Here at Moon Shoal, one of many oyster hatcheries that dot the marsh, oysters are the stars but they’re hardly the only farm dwellers. One of the happiest characteristics of oyster farming is how sustainable and environment-friendly it is. Besides filtering as much as five liters of sea water per hour, oysters intermingle beautifully with the sea life around them. And Moon Shoal farmers Jen and Greg do too, delighting as much in their work environment as they do the product — marveling at the birds, the fish, the rare cast of blue crabs that came through the marsh this summer. 

“We’re living with the ecosystem,” Jen said. “Life goes on around us.”

Just then Greg looked at his gloved hands and the murky expanse below. 

“To appreciate it you really just have to open your eyes,” he said. “You look down and the mud is moving. There are hundreds of tiny organisms, so much life, and everything depends on each other.”

Eventually, in a restaurant, these oysters, shells scrubbed of mud, will arrive at tables on beds of ice for something like $3 apiece; tiny traveling vessels of the saltwater they were raised in while so far from it, carrying with them stories about our world.

“I think humanity would do better to see some of this,” Greg said. “Most people don’t realize where their food comes from and how connected we all are with nature.

“And we see it every day.”

Greg pulls the small skiff further into the farm as the tide rises.
Muddy oysters waiting to be culled for a recent order.
Greg prepares to shovel oysters into plastic tubs to later cull on the floating barge.
Jen adjusts the floating metal trays filled with oysters.

Greg was distracted.

He leapt to the dock from the floating barge, where he and Jen were culling — or sorting and separating — the oysters for an upcoming order. 

“Schoolies,” he said, as he climed aboard the small skiff and eyed the cerulean waters below.

Jen, perching in the open doorway, grinned.

“He can’t think straight,” she said, “when fish are around.”

Greg looks back at Jen as he puts line to water.
“He has a fishing problem,” said Jen with a laugh, watching as Greg excitedly pulls out his fly fishing pole when he spots a group of schoolies.

The two oyster farmers have manned 2/3 of the Moon Shoal team (along with owner Jon) for the last three years, cultivating a beautiful knowledge of their environment as well as a genuine friendship evident immediately to this passerby.

Hailing from nearby Marshfield, Jen worked on the Cape as a commercial farmer before moving to South Africa, where she raised her children and worked with various wildlife projects, including penguin rescue.

“Commercial farming, I didn’t like the (un)sustainable side of that anymore,” she said. “It was a little tough. But I knew I wanted to work outside. I wanted to do no harm. Coming back, I’m getting older, I knew I had one shot to figure it out.”

She arrived at Moon Shoal around the same time as Greg, now 20, who grew up in Barnstable, and a sweet bond — Jen jokes that she’s Greg’s “water mom” — developed, fueled by their mutual love for the environment. 

On a beautiful October day, they both erupted with glee over a sunfish sighting, slowly trailing it in the skiff to watch for its big dorsal fin to flap out of the water. When Jen spotted a flock of plovers, skittering along a grassy sandbar, they stopped what they were doing to watch and admire the birds, moving low in what resembled a glittering wave suspended in air as they prepared to head south for the winter. On the day I went out in the marsh with the two farmers, they were still reminiscing over the recent departure of the ospreys for the season.

“It’s so cool, you can hear them talking to each other and teaching their babies how to fish,” Greg said.

“I never thought I’d be a bird person, but now I get so excited.”

A group of plovers, preparing to migrate south for the winter.
Greg shovels oysters into a plastic tub to sort on the barge.

As signals of their closeness to the outside observer, the two laugh with each other a lot. Jen gently encourages Greg, and listens with respect when he talks, and he, in turn, appears to lean on her for guidance and advice.

They also simply spend a lot of hours together: working the farm, then retreating into the bay to fish, to hit a favorite swimming hole, to crack open a few oysters in the sun. As a team, they’ve weathered storms — including two tornados that hit the bay last summer; they’ve watched seasons change, migrations pass, and they have to be in sync enough to execute the yearly chaos of pulling all the Moon Shoal oysters out of the ocean and transporting them to a refrigerated truck, where they hibernate for the winter. (The oysters they sell during the winter remain in the water.)

“We call it the Christmas miracle,” Jen said. “It’s a mad rush to get everything out, and then get it back in.”

On the floating barge, Jen and Greg pry apart oysters whose shells have stuck together, check that they are the correct size, and sort the “pretties” from the “uglies.”
Moon Shoal sells the oysters that are less visually appealing (but just as tasty!) under the brand Sea Hag.
The oysters are counted and packed into mesh bags and then tossed into a sea container below the barge to store until its time to meet a particular order.

They each have clearly found a calling, and now they’re both on the waiting list for a state grant to one day have their own farms. Greg is pondering some sort of marine studies when he eventually enrolls in a college, even as his father holds some hope that he’ll follow his footsteps as a fireman. But water mom Jen is fostering another dream for Greg as well. 

“He is so instinctive, so in tune and in love with fishing and fish,” she said. “He will be the guy people call up and fly in to fish with them all over the world.”

Outside the barge, those characteristics are evident with Greg catching a striped bass almost as soon as he put line to water. Greg mostly catches and releases these days, he said, and is well-versed in fish stock levels and environmental responsibility. He’s seen how a changing climate affects the sea life, with fish adjusting their patterns of migration — coming in earlier and staying for longer.

“It’s amazing how they match the colors of the marsh,” he said, gently dehooking handling the fish. “He’s a pretty guy, we’ll throw him back.”

Greg fly fishes off the deck of the Moon Shoal boat.
Greg, displaying a young stripped bass he caught in the Great Barnstable Marsh, before returning it to the ocean.

After the work for this day is done, Jen and Greg take me to one of their favorite summer watering holes, a protected cove banked by a pair of sandbars that create a current flowing circularly around a patch of land.

“We call it the lazy river,” Jen said. “We’re pretty good at pausing and realizing how lucky we are.”

This afternoon, the sun high in a deep blue, cloudless sky, was one such moment. Buttercream sand dunes, sprouted with willowing grasses, framed deep pools of water so translucent you could see clear through to the bottom. A few miles of sea away, the oysters were doing their duty, helping to keep places like the Great Barnstable Marsh healthy and beautiful. But all around, too, were signals of the delicacy of environmental balance, and the tenuous nature of everything they’ve come to love. 

“You work so closely in nature and you can’t not be affected by it,” Greg said. 

He swept his arm over the soft peaks of the dunes, so idyllic it seemed they were pulled from a Thoreau novel. 

They wouldn’t always be this way.

“There is so much erosion,” Greg continued. “There are more storms than ever, and the sand is always changing.

“In five years, this may not be here.”

Greg pulls the skiff further into the Moon Shoal farm as the tide rises.

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