Work on an Oyster Farm: Growing Baby Oysters

farming internships oyster seed

Flupsy crew looking down into a silo full of baby oyster seed

To many, the word FLUPSY might seem made-up, probably by Lewis Carroll. I, having grown up landlocked in Idaho, certainly wouldn't have guessed that a FLUPSY is a place where baby oysters grow. As it turns out, it's a (rather whimsical) acronym, standing for FLoating UPweller SYstem. 

Let's break that down: 

  • Floating: A FLUPSY is somehow suspended in the water column. In our case, it's built into an already-floating boathouse. 
  • Upweller: Baby oysters are housed in silos within the FLUPSY. Each silo has a screen on the bottom, and is connected via a pipe to a central trough. As a pump pushes water out of the central trough, it brings water up through the screens. This means the oyster babies get a continually fresh flow of nutrients so they can grow as quickly as possible. 
  • System: (noun) A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network. Basically... it's a system :)

Ok! So now that we know generally what a FLUPSY is and does, we can get down to the really fun question: what's it like to work in a FLUPSY? 

The short answer is: it's a lot of work! You have a few primary goals to keep everything running smoothly and to "graduate" as many healthy oysters as possible:

  • Cleaning
  • Sorting
  • Maintaining the system
  • Graduation!

Cleaning: Everything has to be cleaned, all the time, ESPECIALLY in the summer. Summer is the most exciting time of year at the FLUPSY, because of all the growth. Warmer water contains more nutrients which means more growth, and not just for oysters. Barnacles, tunicates, mussels, sea squirts, algae etc., are all eating and growing and spawning, and as you can imagine, sometimes they grow in spots where you don't want them.

If allowed to grow in those spots, they will eventually block crucial water flow. So, we must scrub them off of the silo screens, out of the pipes connecting the silos to the central trough, off of the housings that hold the silos in place, and off of the pumps. Hope you like to scrub! It can be very therapeutic. Also, the little crabs and fish beneath the FLUPSY are delighted when we scrub, because they get to gobble up the spoils. 

And we mustn't forget to clean the oysters themselves! Sometimes we call baby oysters "seed," but of course they aren't seeds, they are animals. And what do all animals have in common? They produce feces (sorry, it's true!). Oysters, interestingly, produce both regular feces and pseudofeces, which is a substance made up of rejected particles that couldn't be used as food. This part's fun, because we get to use a big hose to wash the gunk away. We pull up each silo one by one (as Sarah is doing in the photo below), and tip them to one side to reach and clean the screen on the bottom. Then, we fluff the oysters with the water to flush any unwanted material out through the screen. 

Sorting: We receive baby oysters from hatcheries and introduce them to the FLUPSY when they are very tiny! Think: the size of quinoa. At that size, they are way too small to be planted on the beach. While those baby oysters do grow quickly, they don't grow at the same rate. For a variety of reasons (location in the silo, proximity to the screen, location in the overall boathouse, currents that carry nutrients to different areas, family/genes, etc.), some oysters grow faster than others. This means we periodically pull up the silos, and sort the oysters by size... separating the runts from the grunts, if you will. We do this by running them through a machine or using screens with various hole sizes to sort by hand.

Sorting allows us to keep the oysters in each silo relatively uniform, which hopefully distributes access to food more equally among them. It also allows us to take a closer look at how each group is doing. When we're finished sorting a batch, we get an estimated count of them using samples. These sample-based counts give us a hint at how many oysters will be big enough to graduate and be planted on the beach in the coming weeks. It also helps us order the correct amount of oyster-sized graduation caps and gowns.


Maintaining the system: Running the FLUPSY is as much about caring for the system as it is about caring for the oysters. Oddly, a big challenge is making sure everything that should be submerged in water stays submerged. Whenever there is a change in weight or weight distribution in the boathouse (say, if you scrub off hundreds of pounds of mussels, or move a piece of equipment), it can cause pumps or pipes to come up out of the water. Then, tweaks have to be made to get everything at the right level again. 

Another challenge is keeping the flow of water moving through the silos strong enough to encourage growth, but not so strong that it sucks the oysters out! The pipes need to fit snugly into the silos so they don't fall out, but not so snug that you can't get them out to clean them. You get where this is all going. The FLUPSY really is an ongoing lesson in balance. 

 inside the boat house at the oyster nursery

Graduation!: After months of scrubbing, and sorting, and balancing, the baby oysters eventually become 12mm long (a little smaller than a penny), and thus, big enough to graduate. Where the next chapter of their lives will take them depends on the needs of our various beaches. Once we determine where we're going to plant them, we transport them to the main farm and move them into grow bags. Out on the beach there are many more lessons in balance, patience, and perseverance, but that's a topic for another blog post. 

Some little oysters will live on our tumble farm and become Blue Pools. Others might become Hama Hamas, or Summerstones, or Disco Hamas. Eventually, they'll travel to your favorite oyster bar or right to your house and make their way onto your table. And now you will treasure them even more since you know all about their journey.

Learn more about oyster reproduction here.  

Sarah (pictured above) joined our crew last summer from Alaska, where she obtained her Bachelor’s of Science and went into fisheries. Sarah’s early work was with salmon, but she eventually made the switch to shellfish, working for a hatchery in Virginia where she was a spawner and nursery technician growing clams and oysters. Now she is rocking the FLUPSY life, growing oysters!

Images by Navid Baraty

Text by Lauren, one of our many awesome oyster farm interns!

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