Oyster farming has become a popular local industry—so much so, that Cape Cod may be running out of space for more, as wait lists are growing in many towns.
Craig Poosikian is the owner of Big Hairy Guy Oyster farm in Eastham, and two years ago, he was able to get a grant to farm oysters near First Encounter Beach.
Poosikian said he got into the business after seeing that it could be fairly lucrative, at 60 cents a pop for a 3-inch oyster. And he’s not alone. Eastham is one of the many towns on the cape that have been experiencing an aquaculture boom. Shellfish warden Nicole Paine of Eastham said the current available portion of beach was dedicated to aquaculture back in 1998. For nearly 20 years, it lay fairly unused. But since 2016, "there was a sudden increase in people wanting to get grants," Paine said. "Originally, when it was created, and for a number of years, it was just available when people wanted it."
Now, there’s a waitlist for a plot, and most people have been on it for two years in Eastham. And other towns across the Cape like Barnstable and Dennis are struggling with a similar problem. In Dennis, the aquaculture grant waitlist is 65 people long, and some have been waiting for nearly a decade.
"It could be a pretty long time potentially for people to get on and off these lists, because it all varies on how long someone wants to be on a grant and running their business," Paine said.
The trouble is, land that can be used for aquaculture must first meet a number of requirements. It has to not be productive, which means wild oysters or clams can’t already be growing there. It also has to be unobtrusive for people who use the beach during the summer.
Melissa Sanderson, a researcher at the Cape Cod Fisherman's Alliance, is working on an initiative that could help towns to streamline the process of opening up more land for grants.
"There’s a lot of hoops you have to go through to get an aquaculture grant because you’re essentially taking a piece of public land and giving it to a private business," she said.
She also said that aquaculture has grown around 450 percent in Massachusetts in the last decade, due to the fact that oysters are easy to grow and there's been a spike in demand with the rise of oyster bars.
"It is what some call an ideal protein, in the sense that it doesn’t require you to have a farm, you’re not putting fertilizers or pesticides, you don’t even need fresh water," Sanderson said. "You’re putting this creature out in the ocean, it’s cleaning the water, and with very little effort, it’s creating a high quality nutritious protein."
Todd Hnis works with the Steamship Authority and he applied for a grant in Dennis back in 2010.
He said he signed up after he graduated from the Maritime Academy, and that because he knew some people already in the business, he thought it would be easy for him to get in too.
"It’s one of those things I put my name on, because it seemed like people were doing well with it, and I knew it would take a long time, so I’d rather have a horse in the race even if he’s way behind, than not have one at all," Hnis said.
In 8 years, he’s now number 34 out of 65 on the list. But he says at this point, he’s not holding his breath.
"While you’re busy making plans, life happens. Nobody’s sitting around waiting for an oyster grant," he said.
Currently, Eastham is working with the Nature Conservancy to help dedicate more land in the next year, and Sanderson with the Fisherman’s Alliance hopes new legislation could help other towns find new areas for oyster farms.