BOURNE — After raking up the last of the overgrown oysters and heaving them onto his small barge, Bruce Silverbrand puttered a mile or so to a shallow bend in Buttermilk Bay, where his daughter dumped the shellfish onto a growing reef of brackish discards.
Forsaking such a valuable delicacy would be unthinkable in normal times, but with environmental advocacy groups buying nearly a quarter of his annual crop to help reconstruct vital coastal reefs, the burly oysterman was happy to unload them, even at a reduced price.
The pandemic has hurt many businesses since March, but it has been particularly painful for the oyster industry. Unlike other seafood harvesters that have managed to sustain their businesses through the pandemic by selling to supermarkets, large institutions, and in some cases directly to consumers, nearly all oysters are sold at restaurants.
“Everybody is suffering through this,” said Silverbrand, who grows 450,000 oysters a year. “We’re trying our best to limp through this and come out on the other side. Some of us will make it; some of us won’t.”
Between March and October, sales from the state’s oyster growers plummeted by 50 percent compared with the same period last year, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Compared with the previous five years, oyster sales have declined 43 percent.
The pain has been felt throughout the industry, from harvesters to wholesalers, said Seth Garfield, president of the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, which represents about 300 growers in the state who sell about $25 million worth of oysters a year.
His company, Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms, is having its worst year since he got into the business 39 years ago, with his catering division shuttered and sales down about 75 percent, he said.
There was a small uptick in sales when restaurants reopened over the summer, but with outdoor seating disappearing and the virus spreading at a rapid rate, the immediate future looks bleak.
“We’ve been slower than slow,” Garfield said.
With many of the 48 million oysters harvested in Massachusetts waters every year still resting in their submerged farms, unlikely to be sold anytime soon, much of the crops will soon be considered overgrown — larger than 4 inches. When they exceed that size, their value plummets, as restaurateurs demand the more modestly sized mollusks.
Compounding the challenges for many farmers, the remaining oysters are taking up valuable space, leaving less room to raise a new crop next year to take advantage of an improved economy.
“The longer this goes on, the more complicated it gets,” Garfield said. “Many growers could be facing a year or two delay before getting caught up, and some might not make it that long.”
Although growers have been able to bring in some income by selling directly to consumers, most lack the license needed to make such sales. Given the potential health risks of eating raw shellfish, the oyster industry is heavily regulated.
The lack of demand and glut in supply have depressed prices for oysters up and down the East Coast, said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, which represents more than 1,500 shellfish farmers from Maine to Florida. It has gotten so bad that farmers have sent truckloads of oysters to dumps or given them away, he said.
“I know a guy saying he’s been building his business for 10 years, and he said he’s watching it all go down the drain,” Rheault said. “The big guys will make it, but I’m concerned about getting the little guys through this. It brings a tear to your eye.”
Among the larger companies likely to ride out the downturn is Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, which before the pandemic harvested about 2 million oysters a year and distributed some 15 million more from other farmers to roughly 1,000 restaurants around the country.
“We’re fortunate to be afloat,” said Chris Sherman, the company’s president.
Still, he estimated the company has lost about $8 million since March and had to furlough, at various points, nearly half its staff.
Its sales to restaurants have plunged, with only 35 of them buying regularly. The company co-owns six restaurants, some of which have closed, perhaps permanently, including the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square.
“It’s just depressing,” Sherman said. “Many of the chefs are in poor shape. It’s bad out there, and it’s getting worse as we head into winter.”
As a reprieve for struggling growers, the Nature Conservancy and the Pew Charitable Trusts this fall began buying 5 million surplus oysters to help restore oyster reefs, about 85 percent of which have disappeared as a result of overharvesting of the shellfish, disease, and pollution. Oyster reefs are mounds of dead and living mollusks that are considered crucial for providing habitat to other species and improving water quality.
The environmental advocacy groups plan to spend about $2 million on the oysters, spreading their purchases among about 100 shellfish companies in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Washington state. They plan to use the oysters to rebuild 27 acres of reefs at 20 restoration sites.
“Oyster reefs are critical components to the functioning of our coastal waters,” said Steve Kirk, coastal program manager for the Nature Conservancy.
On a recent afternoon, Kirk joined Silverbrand at his small farm in Buttermilk Bay, where they stood in the brackish water in waders and raked up some 22,000 oysters, loading them into floating crates before delivering them to the reef.
It was the last of some 90,000 oysters the groups bought from Silverbrand for 45 cents apiece — about 15 cents less than he would typically earn, but 15 cents more than the going rate.
They were the only oysters Silverbrand had sold since March. With his losses mounting into the tens of thousands of dollars, the oysterman was thankful for the support.
“We need all the help we can get,” he said.