Food & Drink

September 23, 2015

Growing Oysters on a Seismic Bed

The Tomales Bay Oyster Company has been farming the shellfish in the San Andreas Fault for over a century

  • Written by Alex Tieghi-Walker
  • Photography by Damien Maloney

The San Andreas Fault is one of the world’s most unpredictable tectonic boundaries and runs directly underneath Tomales Bay, a perfect sliver of water 15 miles long and 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. Eucalyptus trees shoot up from the marsh; the legendary Route One snakes along its western edge.

California grows around 230 different types of crops, from the alfalfa fields of Steinbeck country to the broad sweep of agriculture in the Central Valley – an area parched pale yellow by four years of drought. In Tomales Bay, the crop is oyster. Formed of shallow saltwater beds, oyster farms are also walking the ecological tightrope as the most severe freshwater shortage to face Californians in a generation passes its effects coastward.

“We haven’t experienced this type of climate before, so it’s untreaded ground for us.” Explains Martin Seiler of the Tomales Bay Oyster Company. There are six oyster farms around the bay, mainly fishing Pacific varieties. Lack of water elsewhere in the state means that rivers aren’t feeding the bay with the freshwater minerals oysters need to thrive, develop, and mature. The Humboldt Current, which brings additional nutrients in the Pacific down from the Gulf of Alaska, also hasn’t moved down the coast this year. “The sea surface temperature has gone up so much, by 5°F (2.8°C) in some places,” he says.

“California grows around 230 different types of crops. In Tomales Bay, the crop is oyster.”

A visit to the bay should be a required ritual for oyster lovers. The Tomales Bay Oyster Company has been growing these mollusks for over a hundred years now; this year they planted three million oysters – last year it was five million, but they’re sure to trump that.

Oysters don’t seed themselves very productively. Each creature is neither male nor female, and they spawn sporadically. “I think they’re spawning today, judging by the cloudy film on the water of the bay,” explains Martin. Perhaps they’re excited to see us. Back in the early days at the farm, oyster seed would come from Atlantic varieties, chugged over on the newly completed Pacific Railroad; the tracks had brought prosperity to San Francisco and now it was bringing oysters. Later on, farms switched to Pacific varieties whose seeds were brought over from Japan. The Japanese water temperature is more similar to that of Tomales Bay and the salinity is nearly equal, so the oysters thrived and continue to do so.

Daybreak on the coast provides the seductive illusion of solitude. But here, the still-sleepy surroundings are roused by the gentle hum of hard-hulled motorboats speeding off to the oyster beds in the middle of the bay. At its deepest point, the water rises to 15 feet above the sedimentary floor. Stakes worked in to the marine mud are tethers for bags of young oysters, most just one year old. “They take another year or year and a half to mature,” Enrique, one of the many Mexican fishermen who harvest the oyster saplings tells us.

“Empty shells are tossed back in to the lagoon, so the entire beach glistens like gypsum. It is farm-to-table eating at its most descriptive, productive and cyclic.”

“We have to culture the oysters to make this deep, bowl shape. You pull the oyster bags up from the bed of the bay, shake ‘em and flip ‘em over,” Enrique says, holding a dense net of Kumamoto hatchlings. “Flipping the bags chips the rim of the shell, so the oyster rebuilds higher and higher each time; the deeper cups makes eating the oysters easier and gives you something good to hold on to.”

They serve their oysters here with lime and Tapatio hot sauce, which isn’t as vinegary as Tabasco and is a lot thicker, almost like a fluro-orange pesto. A group of bearded and sun-ripened farmers work beneath plastic awnings, sorting through bags and bags of oysters, cleaning the shells and packaging them in to wire bags for purchase. Customers pick up oysters, ice and utensils, and sit on the edge of the bay while the fishermen work. Empty shells are tossed back in to the lagoon, so the entire beach glistens like gypsum. It is farm-to-table eating at its most descriptive, productive and cyclic.

Some people prize the creaminess that an oyster ready to spawn provides. Martin prefers winter oyster best: “They get firm, and develop a kind of texture of a cucumber.”

What makes Tomales Bay the prime oyster-growing environment is that it’s a closed watershed with only some 600 people living on its shores, mainly in the towns of Inverness and Tomales. The architectural environment is marine vernacular of the highest: white clapboard houses sit on stilts projecting above the marshy water; redwood beams support shingle tiles and neat, black-framed sash windows look out over to the Point Reyes peninsular opposite the bay.

“The oysters filtering all the salt water is nature’s way of making sure the water stays fresh and recycled. Oysters are the earthworms of the sea.”

Nearly all oysters grown worldwide are organic, simply because the creatures need to feed naturally, processing plankton through their gills when they naturally open their shells. “There are some environmental groups trying to shut the Bay oyster companies down, claiming that the farming impacts the fragile ecosystem of the bay,” explains Martin. “What they don’t think about is that the oysters filtering all the salt water is actually nature’s way of making sure the water stays fresh and recycled.” Oysters are the earthworms of the sea.

Martin thinks the ‘foodie revolution’ has sparked a new interest in oysters among younger generations. “Ten years ago, these benches would be filled with Latino families. The farm and building labourers would all come here for dinner, drinking Coronas and playing Mariachi music.” Right now there seems to be a very different crowd. “When the recession hit, the labourers got laid off; luckily things kicked off in Silicon Valley so now you get a lot of techies and young professionals. People even drive up from Los Angeles or Sacramento for these oysters.”

“When the recession hit, the labourers got laid off; luckily things kicked off in Silicon Valley so now you get a lot of techies and young professionals.

El Niño has been the buzzword on Californian farmers’ lips for some months now. Buoys in the Pacific have picked up increased water temperature readings, signaling the return of the 7-ish year weather cycle that brings rain and storms to parts of California. “The last big El Niño was 1997 when they had heavy rains in the Sierra.” Says Martin. “They’re calling this one the Godzilla of El Nios. That’s what the climatologists are calling it. If they’re calling it that, it’s pretty scary.” Whether El Niño will save the farmers or not is debatable; it’s snowfall not rainwater that is needed, as frozen water systems release the water gradually throughout the year rather than in one, severe aqua-dump. That said, if additional freshwater can enter the bay in any way possible then the Tomales Bay Oyster Company will continue to thrive as it has done for decades.

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