Hannah Pearson works in a small, windowless room that resembles a super-villain’s secret lab. Rows of cylindrical tanks, each about 7 feet tall, contain brightly colored liquids in green, yellow, and orange. If it was a Hollywood set, the next mutant nemesis of Iron Man or Spiderman might burst forth at any moment.
But this is the hatchery at Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, so the only thing growing in those giant test tubes is algae. Pearson, a marine biologist and the hatchery manager, monitors each of the 18 tanks closely. Algae feeds the farm’s baby oysters — no bigger than grains of sand at this stage — and is one of the first keys to a business that expects to harvest and sell about 6 million oysters this year.
“Every single one has a different nutritional value,” Pearson said of the algae varieties in her charge. “I make a combination every day so the oysters have a variety of nutrients in their diet.”
The miniature shellfish in the hatchery will be roughly the size of a half-dollar by summer’s end. That’s when farm manager Gardner Loring and his crew will scatter them over six acres of seabed in Duxbury Bay. There the young oysters will grow through the fall and winter, until they are big enough to eat.
Only half of them will make it.
Last year’s survivors are ready for seafood platters now. When the tide goes out and the water is shallow enough to wade through, the oysters can be plucked by hand. The rest of the time, Loring drags a net behind an outboard motorboat to collect them. In less than 10 minutes, the net traps enough oysters to fill three crates, each weighing 50 pounds.
Loring hauls in 8,000 to 10,000 oysters per day. Despite circling the same area, he won’t have to move anytime soon.
“I could drag this spot for three weeks,” he said.
With crates stacked high, Loring doesn’t head for shore; he motors to a floating dock with a weathered shelter the size of a backyard shed. Farm hands call it the Oysterplex. Here, Mark Bouthillier, Billy Balaschi, and Andy Puopolo sort the catch by size.
A three-inch measuring ring sits on a shelf in one corner. It doesn’t get much use.
“We’ve been doing this for a while,” said Puopolo. “We go mostly by eye.”