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Oysters Are Their World

Photo by Janet Orsi

Baywatch: John Finger of Hog Island Oyster Co. harvests mature shellfish from Tomales Bay. Across the nation, the appetite for West Coast oysters and clams has grown to an all-time high with an increasingly sophisticated consumer base that demands quality and is willing to pay for it.

On Tomales Bay, tasty bivalves spell big bucks for local entrepreneurs

By David Templeton

Far off from the shore, crouching knee-deep in the rippling waters of Tomales Bay, John Finger hoists a glistening black-mesh bag, heavy with wet, dripping oysters, up from the spot they have occupied for most of a year.

As water pours out in a great rush, Finger shakes the stiff, flat container from side to side, redistributing its contents evenly before lowering the bag back into the cold, salty tide. It will be at least another five or six months before these oysters are ready to harvest. Until then, they will wait, lounging, feeding, and growing on the muddy bay bottom, the lucky residents of a home that is counted among the most pristine and unsullied estuaries in the country.

In 1983, Finger co-founded the Hog Island Oyster Co., headquartered in the west Marin town of Marshall, along with partners Michael Watchhorn and Terry Sawyer. It is one of a handful of aquacultural companies farming Tomales Bay for oysters, mussels, and clams. Enjoying a reputation as the producer of some of the heartiest, tastiest oysters in Northern California, Hog Island sells 1 million oysters a year, mostly to restaurants (including John Ash & Co., Equus, and San Francisco's Stars), while holding down a healthy weekend retail business run from its rustic bayside plant just off Highway 1.

It is a favorite stop for motorists pausing to buy a dozen meaty mollusks for $6 to $8 and choosing from four different varieties of oysters, including the East Coast Atlantic variety, of which Hog Island is the sole grower on the West Coast. They also sell mussels and clams, and even abalone, grown by the affiliated Abalone Acres.

Explorers wander the mud flats, poking about among bubbling tanks in which the oysters are stored just before shipping. Picnickers avail themselves of the wooden tables, while photographers have a picaresque field day.

The soul of the oyster farm, however, is not on shore. It is out here in the water, where high tides will cover millions of oysters with six feet of water, and low tides will expose them to the sunlight and the air, a unique cycle that toughens them, ensuring that they will remain fresh for several days after harvesting.

Today, a crew of three--Finger, Craig Dockendorf, and Mark Dean--have just distributed the daily returns (oysters that, during the sorting process, were deemed too small for sale, and must wait until another harvest for their turn in the spotlight), and have now set themselves to harvesting.

It is hard, often back-breaking work, this oyster business, requiring a good deal of brains and brawn. Part wrestler and part scientist, the aquacultural farmer must be able to wrench a 50-pound sack from the vacuum-tight mud and swing it up over his head onto a boat, while citing minute details of the tides and the weather, the bacteria levels in the water, and the biological variables of a species that looks vastly lacking in complexity but is, in fact, incredibly fragile.

Even so, on a mild and sunny day like today, becoming a farmer of shellfish seems an enviable occupation.

"There are mornings when we're out here," Finger describes, standing to stretch in the numbingly cold water, "and the fog will just drift down from the hills and out onto the water. Suddenly, you can't see the shore, but the sunlight filters down, and everything is quiet, hushed. And you stand still--you can almost feel the bay breathing.

"We've got a little saying around here," he adds. "A little rule we teach our employees. It's simply, 'Stop! Look where you work.' We are working in this amazing, incredible part of the planet, and it'd be a shame not to take the time to notice that."

Finger, an avid surfer originally from New York, chose a career in aquaculture primarily to stay close to the water. He studied at Southampton College on Long Island, a respected training ground for marine biologists, and spent several years working the oyster trade in Ireland, Spain, and nearby Moss Landing.

When he and his partners started the business from scratch, they knew a fair amount about the business. Over the last 13 years, they've learned even more. They are now heavily involved in local environmental efforts to sustain the quality of the bay, working with federal regulators and the owners of local dairies, runoff from which can shut the bay down to harvesting for several days following a rainfall. Testing is under way to determine if the bay's bacteria count, which goes up after every downpour, is affected solely by the farms or if other factors--birds or sea lions, for example--may play a part.

With tough federal regulations in place, Tomales Bay has stayed essentially immaculate, a rarity that has heightened the demand for shellfish produced in this tiny piece of the coast.

Across the nation, the appetite for West Coast oysters and clams in general has grown to an all-time high, with an increasingly sophisticated consumer base that demands quality and is willing to pay to get it.

Most of the oyster farms on the bay are tiny, mom-and-pop-style organizations. Hog Island, one of the largest, has only seven full-time employees. Johnson's Oyster and Seafood Co., which also operates a restaurant in Petaluma, is the undisputed king of the pond, with a massive shucking-and-bottling operation.

All those oysteries lease their tidal waters from the state Department of Fish and Game, at $35 an acre a year. Seven hundred acres of the bay, a bit less than 10 percent of its total surface area, are allocated for aquaculture, though only a fraction of that is actually producing oysters.

"There are six small growers on the bay," explains Finger, "and we could all be selling five times what we're doing now. We're raising the capital to expand now. We've already got 2 million clams planted out in our newly developed area. They won't be ready for another two years. But the demand continues, and we just haven't been able to expand enough to meet it yet."

He suggests that if the growing demand for his product is the best thing about his industry, the worst thing is being at the mercy of the elements.

"This is a farm," he says simply, "and that means Mother Nature."

A recent Pacific storm--with its hurricane-force winds that toppled trees and downed electrical towers all across the northern end of the state--has wreaked a bit of mayhem here on the bay as well. Even now, there are dozens of mesh bags turned upside down and sideways, shoved together at the ends of the submerged cables to which they are tethered, sticking up from the water at odd angles, like the skeletal remains of a shipwreck.

The windswept tides tore loose dozens of bags and carried them away. Search teams were forced to retrieve as many as possible.

"We found one of our clam bags way around the point," Finger says with a laugh. "The storm took it half way to Dillon Beach."

As he goes about straightening the mess, he describes the various approaches to growing oysters. There is the low-cost cluster approach, such as Johnson's employs, where 30 to 40 hatchery-grown oyster larvae, called "seeds," are planted on a single piece of shell and "broadcast" along the bay bottom, where they grow up fused together before finally being broken apart after harvesting.

This method, says Finger, usually results in no more that six or seven viable oysters, unlike the single-seed method employed by Hog Island, wherein one larva is attached to a tiny chip of oyster shell. When the seed has grown to a quarter of an inch, it is placed in the mesh bags, 40 or so to a bag, and tethered to a cable out in the water.

"All of the high-quality half-shell oysters are grown single seed," Finger explains. "That way we can manipulate their shell, shape, and quality."

Back on dry land, the crew is busy sorting the day's harvest. Working on a long wooden counter, they empty each bag and swiftly divide it up into extra small, small, and medium sizes, dropping the oysters into a chute that carries them into the appropriate crate.

Crabs, eels, and other stowaways are tossed out onto the mud.

As they work, the crew members name off some of the positives of an oyster farmer's life: You work outside, you're involved with nature, you never lack for fresh air, and people tend to glamorize your occupation.

"Yeah, people think it's pretty romantic," Finger laughs. "It's somehow glamorous, and exciting. And most of the time . . . I guess it is."

"This is what I like best," calls Dockendorf. Pulling out his pocket knife, he lifts a good-sized Atlantic and slits the muscle that holds the shell closed.

He cuts the oyster meat loose and swirls it about in the salty juices before tossing it into his mouth. Eyes closed, he savors his snack, then tosses the shell away.

"There," he says. "Oysters don't get any fresher than that."

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From the Jan. 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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