Even In The Dead Of Winter, Burgeoning Duxbury Oyster Farms Hard At Work

The Pangea Shellfish oyster crew flips bags of young oysters to help them breathe.Photo: Chaiel Schaffel/WBZ NewsRadio

DUXBURY, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — The frigid water of Duxbury Bay climbs up past the knee on the dark green rubber waders of the oyster flippers. The sand beneath everyone’s feet feels something like Play-Doh, and you get stuck if you stay in one spot too long.

But the crew out here, with the Boston-based Pangea Shellfish Company, doesn’t have time to stand still. They’re hard at work even in the dead of winter, to keep up with the ramping demand of the burgeoning Massachusetts oyster farming industry.

The weather is the definition of sheer luck. All week, the wind has been roaring out of the north at 20 miles per hour. Today, there’s crystal-clear, robin’s-egg skies overhead and the bay is like a sheet of glass, with the barest hint of a sea breeze.

Photo: Chaiel Schaffel/WBZ NewsRadio

Every Day, All Day… With Some Exceptions

“We’re out here every day, all day,” says Paul, one of the crew. He quickly explains that’s not exactly the case. You can’t farm oysters after dark or before the sun comes up. The workers here need to take advantage of low tide, when the water gets shallow enough to wade through.

The crew here is led by Pangea’s farm manager in Duxbury, James Kearns, who’s piloting one of the pontoon boats that takes us out to the bay.

The three-acre farm being worked today is named Standish Shores, though with no obvious property lines in the water, it’s hard to tell it apart from more than a dozen other farms here. The oysters that are ready to be served up are kept in “cars,” metal cage-like boxes under the water. Those are constantly being moved around by the tide, and so need frequent organization. That was some of the job today.

The oysters themselves can take up to 18 months to grow from the size of a pinky fingernail to the crustaceans you’d find on a dinner plate. They are “planted” in the bay to grow for months, and eventually picked through by the crew.

“If you’re one of those people who likes to be outside, and constantly moving, and physical work, never a dull moment… this is for you,” Tracy tells me. She’s been on the job about five years and was a stay-at-home mom before taking up oystering. A second career was also the theme for the other crew I talked to. James was a programmer before taking up this job almost a decade ago.

It’s not fishing, Tracy says, not really. With all the exacting work that goes into it, it’s more like gardening. And different customers like different oysters. Retail buyers at a grocery store don’t mind if an oyster doesn’t look like a photo from a nature magazine. “A fancy restaurant, they want it perfect. They want perfect!” Tracy said, clapping with emphasis. The priciest and most exclusive oysters have a precise cup shape that upscale restaurants prize.

The bulk of the day’s work was to make sure some of the oysters could breathe. The crew spent hours flipping and cleaning off mesh bags filled with adolescent bivalves the size of a quarter. That makes sure the young oysters don’t suffocate and crowd over each other in the muck.

A Growing Industry

Owner Ben Lloyd started Pangea Shellfish Company in 2001. The oyster farming industry in Massachusetts has grown massively since then, and it’s still growing at a fast clip.

The entire farmed shellfish industry in the Commonwealth brought in just over $10 million in 2011. Just over a decade later, that industry is now harvesting more than $30 million in oysters alone every year.

Photo: Chaiel Schaffel/WBZ NewsRadio

Duxbury appears to be at the heart of the operation. In 2022, farmers there grew more than 13 million of the creatures — more than any other city or town in the state.

The demand is fueling some good-natured rivalries in Duxbury Bay.

“There’s definitely a little competition,” says Nick, who’s just been flipping bags for two hours. “But everybody’s always right there if you need help. No one would ever drive by someone on a boat that just died. Everybody knows everybody’s name,” he said.

WBZ’s Chaiel Schaffel (@CSchaffelWBZ) reports from Duxbury:

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