Mobile Oyster Aquaculture Farming Unit

Progress report for FNE21-985

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2021: $14,999.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Brigantine Oyster Company
Region: Northeast
State: New Jersey
Project Leader:
TODD KOSTKA
Brigantine Oyster Company
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Project Information

Summary:

 

 

 

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to show small-scale oyster farmers the benefits of using a pontoon boat based mobile farming unit to manage husbandry and equipment maintenance with a limited farm workforce.  This unit will enable small farms like ourselves to handle large amounts of husbandry work and farm maintenance in any area of the farm with the ability to move it easily. The unit in this project will have the added assistance of cranes and haulers so heavy oyster containing equipment can be tended to quickly then returned to the water to grow. This is a solution to allow farmers to work their farms more productively, save them physical strain and be financially viable for a typical small oyster farm of 1-10 employees.  Beyond building and demonstrating the use of this tool, the secondary objective will be to document and quantify its potential cost and labor savings in a small farm setting.

Introduction:

The annual sales of domestic marine aquaculture products have seen double digit increases for over a decade. Throughout the Northeast coastal areas are seeing growth in shellfish aquaculture activity, predominantly oyster farming.[1]  Shellfish aquaculture is primarily a business of a small-scale often family-owned farms with aquaculturists commonly coming from commercial fishing families and communities.[2] North America as a whole sees similar trends in aquaculture and small-scale operations. A survey conducted in Alaska showed 62 farms operating under 10 acres and less than 15 operating over 10 acres. [3] In the Northeast specifically the commercial wild fisheries sector has lost jobs in recent years due to declining fish stocks. Many of these fishermen are now growing oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, and seaweed as a means for a more reliable and stable life in these coastal communities. This shift to aquaculture from other fisheries also reflects a generational change. For example, the average fisherman in Maine is in their mid-50s; most working in aquaculture are in their mid-30s.[4]

  The goal is to share a process for small-scale aquaculture farmers to improve productivity with their limited labor force.  The problem is that oyster farms in the Northeast are largely small operations and increasing production means increasing the physical toll on the farmer(s) and doing so within a finite amount of available work time. The opportunity is to provide farmers a way to reduce physical strain from manually tending oyster growing gear, and enable higher quality and faster crop yields in a way that is financially viable at the small farm level.

     A 2016 survey by New Jersey SeaGrant returned responses from 20 total aquaculture farms, totaling 37 full-time employees.[5] Averaging less than 2 full-time employees per farm it is clear that efficient farming techniques are of vital importance to farmers.  Farm-raised oysters need to be planted then meticulously cultured to bring a strong and healthy oyster to market as soon as possible. The longer a crop stays in the water the more susceptible it becomes to a large number of marine pests that threaten its health. This is especially the case in floating equipment systems during summer months where oysters are feeding at a maximum. High water temperatures and fast growing will result in a build-up of metabolites, which should be removed on a weekly basis.[6]  These pests can degrade shell strength, weaken the animals only ability of defense (closing its shell), and reduce the appeal for half-shell presentation.  If these issues are not controlled, they have the potential to overwhelm an oyster farmer and cause them to incur very high labor cost or loss of crop from increased mortality.  Pro-active control of fouling is essential, with routine control measures taken before fouling becomes problematic.[7]  As farms increase production, they add to the pressure to maintain a larger crop and increase the physical strain on the farmers to work more equipment in the same available time.

[1] https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/aquaculture/us-aquaculture

[2] https://www.northeastoceancouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Aquaculture-White-Paper.pdf

[3] https://www.afdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2b-Alaska-Shellfish-Farm-Size-Feasibiliy-Study.pdf

[4] https://www.afdf.org/wp-content/uploads/14d-The-Political-Economics-of-Marine-Aquaculture-in-the-US-Knapp-and-Rubino-2016.pdf

[5] http://njseagrant.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/NJAquacultureSurvey2016.pdf

[6] https://wsg.washington.edu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/publications/Small-Scale-Oyster-Farming.pdf

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301625835_OFF-BOTTOM_OYSTER_FARMING

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Doug Zemeckis - Technical Advisor
  • Sean Towers (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

 

Our farm currently utilizes approximately 200 individual oyster growing cages which when laden weigh anywhere from 50-200+ lbs.  As of Spring 2021 we plan to have 350 deployed. As mentioned, farm personnel and labor capacity will not increase. Currently our farm operations take place at low-tide in 2.5-3 feet of water and are conducted by individuals working in wetsuits, in the water. An average day includes manually flipping all cages into air-drying position, husbandry work/maintenance to approximately 15 cages, and harvesting/packing 1000-2000 market-sized oysters.

 

The mobile work unit will be a 20-30 foot pontoon boat adapted to these tasks which are common to all subtidal, floating cage based farms. In the Northeast similar subtidal production methods are commonly utilized throughout Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, & Maine in addition to New Jersey. Other farm contacts in both New Jersey and Massachusetts have already expressed interested in our project. It will feature a specially designed deck equipped with a removable loading ramp to haul equipment aboard.  Additionally, it will also have mechanical hauling equipment to aid in bringing large quantities of equipment onboard simultaneously. Provisions for work surfaces, shade coverings and commercial ice totes will be built in, enabling us to harvest and cool large numbers of oysters in a rapid and safe manner. The unit will have the ability to move around the 6-acre farm and cover numerous tasks in multiple locations in a given workday.

 

Utilizing the mobile unit, it is estimated that we will more than double efficiency for a typical daily regimen of husbandry work and maintenance on 35-40 cages, harvesting 2000-3000 market-sized oysters and positioning 75% more cages to air dry. These goals will be accomplished by the ability to haul entire long-lines (approx. 12-15 cages each) on board the mobile unit using the our specially designed ramp and the assistance of mechanical hauling equipment.   The unit will also allow work to be conducted into high-tide depths of over 6 feet, freeing us from being limited in our work time by the tidal state. The introduction of mechanical assistance will not only make working quicker, but also increase individual work efficiency and safety due to reduced fatigue. Our workflows and techniques will be recorded in detail in a farm journal.

 

Air drying a larger number of oysters coupled with the ability to complete husbandry and maintenance work on a larger number of oysters will lead to higher quality and increased crop yields.  Spring and summer are high-season for oyster growth, but marine grass, sponge, and tunicate growth also can overtake the equipment, weighing the gear down and choking off the flow of waterborne nutrients to the animals. The mobile unit will enable more frequent power-washing of equipment to mitigate marine/biofouling on equipment and oysters. As a stable work platform the unit will also be where farmers can adjust the density of animals in each cage to optimize the oyster’s ability to feed and grow, rather than having to do this bulk sorting work while standing in the water using baskets etc. at a very low level of efficiency. Summer is the time of year that is integral to growth for farms and this unit will not only allow better maintenance day-to-day but we will also demonstrate techniques for farmers of how to leave gear on the unit for a 24-hour period to air dry and kill excessive levels of marine fouling. Utilizing our farm journal data from previous years, we will track these metrics that will include growth rates vs. prior years data as well as farm work productivity and labor demands. Throughout the length of this project we will maintain a set of control equipment and will track growth rates, meat density, and sizing consistency as if all farm processes remained the same prior to this project.  All data will be recorded in our farm journal.

 

Often on our farm if an issue is detected with oyster gear, the cages either have to be “field repaired” in less than ideal circumstances in the water with limited tools and ability to work, or it has to be removed from service and taken back to land to be fixed.  The mobile until will be equipped with materials, tools, and space to make a large percentage of repairs on site and in real-time rather than having to take equipment out of service and off the farm for repairs. This will reduce instances of lost equipment and down-time, both which contribute to increased costs and reduced efficiency.

 

Having the mobile unit on the farm will positively benefit compliance with all current food safety initiatives as well.  During summer months, the Vibrio sp. season, harvest times are limited and strictly regulated to ensure a safe product for consumers.  We will have the ability to quickly harvest, cull, pack, and ice our oysters onboard the unit then use our small farm skiff to land the days harvest into mechanical refrigeration in rapid time.  Time to refrigeration will easily exceed all current limits in the regulations and enable a small farm to grow their harvests even in a small and regulated daily harvest time window with a limited amount of labor.

 

We will monitor growth rates and survival along with farm productivity and compare this data with prior years data to show the impact on production, efficiency, and labor costs.  We will also collect and record specific data on how long it takes to complete specific husbandry and harvest tasks both with and without this labor-saving aid.  Additionally, we will prepare a basic economic analysis comparing the cost of building the mobile farming unit versus the labor cost to employ the amount of labor equal to the observed labor savings of using the unit.

 

Progress Reporting: In 2021 our farm doubled in size in terms of animals and quantity of gear used on the farm. In late winter early spring 2022 it will again double in size and the ability to move around the farm to different locations within our 6+ acres will prove vital to ensure continued strict husbandry practices.

Research results and discussion:

Progress Report: Beginning April 2021 we began exploring outlets to acquire materials for our unit in a cost effective manner as described in our project overview.

  • First- we identified the style rigging and rope to haul long lines in unison onto the work unit.  To be utilized manually then incorporated into the mechanical hauling system.  (See attached photo showing rig assembly).
  • In progress: Custom long lines rigging & splicing. These lines are specifically designed to be hauled on deck of the unit all at once. This will total 15 growing cages at a time.  Previously, cages were disconnected manually in the water and worked in pairs on board our work boat. This will will have the strongest impact on the operation; transitioning from working a single line in a tide cycle to effectively working 3 lines. This new rigging will also enable large scale work to be done regardless of tide cycle.
  • Next we acquired a second hand utility pump to be utilized on board the platform for various large-scale washing tasking. For both gear maintenance as well as husbandry.
  • At this point it was mid June and we found a suitable pontoon to begin the process. See pontoon photo in previous owners yard before it was in water and dismantled by our team. The pontoon owner needed the pontoon to be moved from the dock it was stored at immediately so we quickly moved at the opportunity as it was local and close by.  Owner allowed us to use and begin modifications prior to final terms of sale being finalized as a gesture for moving it so quickly. Modifications included removing all non-working equipment including seats, framing and motor.
  • We installed fixed anchors to moor the pontoon to on our farm, while waiting for continued pontoon construction and updates. Immediately we began utilizing the unit in its current state.  See 2 attached photos of gear drying on deck the unit, team washing gear with new pump system, and team splitting seed oysters into new gear. At this point we were already seeing efficiencies increase by more than 100%. With electric hauling we predict we will surpass our projected gear husbandry number, and increase efficiencies another 100-150%.
  • In early May we acquired a second hand motor to power our mobile unit (see photo) followed by steering and console (see picture).
  • Custom line hauler was ordered in December, however Covid as well as serve supply chain issues have delayed the manufacturing by 2-3 months.
  • Custom long lines have been designed and will be completed through February 2022.  These lines will work with rigged cages and hauling system (pictured below)
  • August 6 - Rutgers University Shellfish Laboratory Research and Hatchery Manager, Sean Towers tour our farm operation with a focus on the opportunities this mobile unit will present to us.  Ideas and suggestions on layout have been an open dialogue with Sean ever since.
  • December 21/Jan 22 our order arrived of matching fuel line for our motor as well as the gas tank. Strategic planning for layout has begun and pontoon will be placed on land February 2022 for assembly and all mechanical construction, and finally the hauling system incorporation.

 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Tours

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

August 6 - Rutgers Shellfish Lab Researcher and Manager Sean Tours toured our operation to get a better understanding of our plan

August 22 - Visit to Monks Cover Oyster Farm, Bourne Massachusetts and spent the day on their operation. Although they do not have a mobile unit as we are building that have a stationary float (as we described in our initial report) moored direct on their farm.  This dock and enclosed space offered immense takeaways including new ideas for system flow on deck our as well as nursery systems within the floating unit to rear juvenile oyster seed. This farm is also at the forefront of some unique sustainable aquaculture practices - including a completely solar powered set-up on the stationary unit.

August 27 - Visit to Merry Oyster Farm, Duxbury Massachusetts.  Visit included sharing information and practices on harvesting and packing, also on their stationary farm unit.  This visit we saw an automated oyster counting machine this small farm utilized on board their unit that substantially benefited their harvest and packing efficiency given their labor force.  We also saw wet holding storage on the unit where the team can harvest product, bag it and leave it submersed in cages build into the unit. Another major finding from this visit was it gave us the style, design, and manufacturer for our hauling system. Pictured below

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.