The Hippo


May 24, 2020








Recreational oyster farmer Jon Iber harvests the shelled delicacy from the floor of the Great Bay.

Oyster progress
Recreational oystering season heats up as restoration efforts continue


For 60-year-old Jon Iber of Barrington and a couple hundred other Granite Staters willing to brave coastal waters at their coldest, recreational oystering season has begun — but it’s still not as prolific as it used to be. 

You might spot Iber four-feet deep in the Great Bay, an inner tube floating along beside him and homemade tongs made from two small rakes in his hands. He’ll be out there for a couple hours to gather half a bushel of oysters — much longer than the half hour or so it used to take him to collect twice as many.
“There is nowhere near the availability of recreational oyster as there used to be,” said Bruce Smith of New Hampshire Fish and Game. 
Bringing back the oysters
The good news is that things aren’t getting worse; the number of adult oysters decreased from more than 25 million in 1993 to 1.2 million in 2000 and has plateaued around that amount. A collection of damaging factors is to blame, Smith said: at least two disease organisms, sediment at the bottom of the estuaries and not enough nitrogen in the water. 
Oysters provide important filtering services in estuaries, and without them the health of the water is compromised. Without the filtering work other elements of the habitat can’t thrive. There’s less eel grass, for example, which is a nursery and feeding area for fish. 
“This has been a cause for alarm because of the oysters’ ability to do a number of things no other organism can do,” said Ray Konisky, conservation ecologist from the Nature Conservancy. “They are incredible filters and they can really help reduce the amount of nutrients in the water and make it more clear.”
Conservationists from University of New Hampshire Jackson Lab and New Hampshire Nature Conservancy have been working for years to restore some of the population. They’ve discovered high levels of oyster spat (eggs) — the problem was, there wasn’t enough shell for the spat to cling on to, so it was dying. 
“That was a real wakeup call we could do something here,” Konisky said. “If we could add more shell to the system and more oysters, we could make a big difference.”
Since then, conservationists have been dumping thousands of pounds of clam shells into the bay, essentially creating a reef for oysters to cling to. 
Those efforts have seen some success. The population increased to 2.2 million in 2011. Konisky doesn’t expect the population to ever return to what it was, but there will be enough to help the environment. 
“What we feel we can restore is the services the oysters provided. That’s what we focused on,” he said.
Recreational licenses down 
With fewer oysters, fewer New Hampshirites are buying licenses to farm them recreationally. 
“Usually I bring up 40 pounds of shell and rock  in a tongful,” Iber said. “I’m lucky if I get one oyster out of that. Most of it is rock and empty shell and junk.”
For $30 New Hampshire residents can get a permit to harvest oysters. They must be plucked by hand or tongs from the bottom of Great Bay and Little Bay and cannot be harvested during summer months when oysters are spawning. 
Only New Hampshire residents are allowed to purchase licences. Most come from Rockingham and Hillsborough counties. 
For those willing to do the work, oystering is a good deal, considering how long the season is; it runs from September to May. Unlike clam harvesters, who are allowed to harvest once a week, oyster harvesters are allowed to go out every day and can collect up to half a bushel each time.  
Last season 221 residents bought oystering permits, about half as many as when resources were abundant. At oystering’s peak, in 1989, licenses went out to 771 individuals. 
Things are looking a little more promising as efforts to restore the oyster population continue.
“I guess I would say it’s slowly improving,” Iber said. “I notice more oysterers out now. Back three or four years nobody went out. I knew a bunch of people who didn’t get licenses. It just wasn’t worth it.” 
Commercial farming surges
While recreational oystering is still on shaky ground, the state’s oyster aquaculture farming industry has grown from practical nonexistence to just about critical mass. Space in the estuaries is running out. 
“It really took off around the year 2005 and now we are getting one to two new license hopefuls a year,” Smith said. “We have about 14 licenses. I think we’re getting close to being topped off. We’re running out of space.”
After going through a lengthy licensing process, farmers earn the right to use 1 to 4 acres of Little Bay. They plant cages and distribute hundreds of thousands of  “seed” oyster purchased for less than a penny a piece. It takes about two years for them to grow to a saleable size, about 3 to 4 inches long. 
Taken at face value, oyster farming seems like a good investment. Each one sells for about 60 cents. But that’s not the reality, Smith said. It’s difficult to get oysters to thrive. 
“Mortality can be as high as 60 percent per year,” Smith said.”You may buy 100,000 and the next year there are 50,000 less. And there’s always the potential a natural event could wipe you out, so it’s not as simple as some think.”
While the the current farms are commercial, a new farming endeavor may provide more opportunities for recreational harvesters. 
In 2013 Ralph Jimenez, a part-time Concord Monitor editor, and Ken Potter, a resident of Portsmouth, proposed opening Joe King’s Oyster Cooperatives. It’s a three-quarter-mile  oyster farm that would be a recreational operation. The farm is slated to “provide shellfish for personal consumption while improving the health of the bay,” according to a license application. 
They also had plans to donate the shells to UNH and other organizations invested in an oyster reef-building project. Jimenez declined to comment about the new endeavor. 
As seen in the October 9, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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