How to Start an Oyster Farm – Mother Earth News (2023)

An oyster farmer lays out the steps and considerations for how to start an oyster farm and how to farm oysters so that you too can join this aquaculture movement.

Before learning how to start an oyster farm, you should know two things.

First, oyster farming has tremendous upsides, and you’ll love your job. Your commute to work will be a boat ride, your office the great outdoors. It can be lucrative. You can buy an oyster seed for about a nickel, and perhaps 18 months later, sell that same mollusk for 60 cents. And the business is beneficial to the environment. Oysters are filter feeders, and as they eat plankton, they remove damaging nitrogen in the water. Put a lot of oysters in a concentrated area, and they’ll keep the waters there clean.

Second, oyster farming also has downsides, and you’ll hate your job. Boats will break down, and your bivalves will be subject to disease, storms, and predators. Unforeseen circumstances will arise, which shut down restaurants, the primary users of cultivated oysters. The work is repetitive and physically hard, the water gets cold, and you’ll damn the December day you have to shovel snow from your boat. And oyster shells are razor-sharp. Sometimes you’ll bleed.

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Historically, oyster lovers everywhere ate from the wild. Aficionados had ready access to teeming beds of shellfish to forage. Now, almost all oysters eaten by consumers have been farm-raised. The reality is bleak: More than 85% of the world’s wild oyster reefs have been lost, the reasons for this threefold: higher water temperatures due to climate change causing increased ocean acidity; a pair of diseases, dermo and MSX, negatively affecting the breathing capabilities of oysters; and overfishing. By 1990, many wild populations had disappeared.

A proliferation of farms in U.S. coastal areas (Massachusetts presently has 371) raise Crassostrea virginica. This includes our own farm, the Crooked River Shellfish Farm, located in Wareham, Massachusetts. Beginning in 2017, we sought approval from local, state, and federal agencies. Then, we bought gear, a boat, and nearly 200,000 tiny oysters. We became part of the aquaculture movement, the world’s fastest-growing food-production method.

How to Start an Oyster Farm – Mother Earth News (2)

The process of starting a business farming oysters begins with a tidal wave of red tape. Coastal sites need approval, and the maze you must find your way through is daunting. Our first step involved meeting with the harbormaster to discuss farming opportunities along our 50 miles of shoreline. Five such operations already existed, but there was still acreage available. We developed a five-year plan and proposed it to the board of selectmen. Once their approval was secured, the Division of Marine Fisheries weighed in, including a scuba survey of the sea bottom to determine if eel grass (beneficial to a variety of species) was prevalent and whether existing shellfish there should be left for recreational diggers. I also filed paperwork with the local conservation commission, with its eye on endangered-species impacts. I notified abutters and two Native American tribes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined whether the proposed site would interfere with navigational traffic. This nightmare of forms, fees, and frustration took one year. At the end, I leased 6.8 acres of ocean at the annual rate of $25 per acre.

How to Farm Oysters: Popular Methods

Generally, oyster farmers use one of four methods to raise oysters, and the neophyte must decide on the best option. I was fortunate enough to enter into my endeavor with a business partner who had experience within the oyster industry. I relied on him to make such decisions.

Bottom Culture

Farmers can place oysters on the substrate in free-range fashion, known as “bottom culture.”


Oysters are retained in bags fastened to metal racks a distance above the seafloor. With these systems, the oysters are near the shoreline, fully submerged at high tide,and fully exposed at low tide.

Suspended Culture

Oysters hang below the surface 24/7.

Longline Culture

Oysters are kept floating on the surface in mesh bags. When Crooked River was established, we used a longline culture system of floating bags.

Choosing an Oyster-Farming Method

Choosing a method involves weighing pros and cons. Bottom-cultured oysters are vulnerable to predators in a way floating oysters aren’t. Crabs, for example, can make advances on the free meal. And if the seafloor is muddy, oysters can get lost and smothered in a thick slop. But minerals in the substrate produce robust and hearty shells when oysters are in contact with the bottom. By contrast, the shells of oysters raised in floats can be brittle and thin.

Then, there’s the matter of cost. Bottom-cultured oysters preclude the necessity of purchasing expensive gear. And you’ll have other considerations. Do your town regulations allow for floating gear? Does your site have sufficient depth to consider a suspended system? (Oysters that are in water 24/7 grow fast.)

Then, consider tumbling oysters. Oysters shaken by waves or human hands will grow deep cups. Restaurants prefer deep-cupped oysters, as these cups retain the oyster and liquid within the shell, thus preserving taste and enhancing their briny presentation. Oysters in floating bags receive natural tumbling in the form of waves. Therefore, the farmer doesn’t need to shake them.

Gear for How to Start an Oyster Farm

So, you have a siten and you’ve decided on a growth method. Now, amass your gear. When Crooked River got going, our startup costs were approximately $40,000 (my partner and I split everything 50-50). We bought a used 16-foot Carolina Skiff. This boat had a flat bottom conducive to standing, working, and hauling oysters and gear. We bought hundreds of mesh bags and cylindrical floats, assembling them by hand on a homemade jig with hog rings. At our site, we set up floating rope lines held in place at each end with helical anchors. These lines gave us parking spaces for the floating bags. By April, we’d placed our first order for hatchery-produced oyster spat. The size of your pinky fingernail, they’ll be iced and transported from a state-approved hatchery to your farm and dispersed into bags by volume. Saleable oysters must achieve a 2-1/2-inch length, and the faster you reach this goal, the sooner you’ll profit. Spawning oysters in a hatchery is part science, part alchemy. The induced spawning and manipulation of genetics in these labs can produce oysters that are more interested in eating than in reproduction, and that are more resistant to disease. Promotion of the urge to eat results in faster growth.

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Now, you’re in business, and the real work begins. At first, each small mesh bag will hold perhaps 1,000 oysters. As they grow, nourishing themselves on plankton, they’ll need to be relayed into larger mesh bags with fewer oysters in each bag. Bigger oysters will out-eat little oysters, so you’ll have to cull and disperse accordingly. Haul in a bag, empty it on a table, cull, scrape the oysters if Crepidula (slipper shells) have adhered, clean the biofoul from the mesh, and then redeploy as efficiently as you can. This is a constant process, and as long as you have oysters, it’ll never end. Frugal farmers do all of this manually. The big dogs, established farmers with deep pockets, invest in the mechanical ability to cull.

Flip the floating bags for effective growing. Bag bottoms can become so biofouled that they restrict water flow, causing the oyster’s menu options to wane. So, we walk along our rows and turn bags over, exposing sea muck to the sun so anything living will dry out and die. One week later, we’ll do it all again. Then again, and again, and again.

When an oyster eats, inhaling seawater, it also takes in damaging nitrogen that would result in the loss of critical habitat for other species. Thus, when thousands of these bivalves exist in a specific area, those bodies of water stay pristine. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of seawater each day.

Oyster-Farming Timeline

Though we understood it would take 1-1/2 to 2 years before our 5/8-inch oysters would reach saleable size, we sold our first few hundred just nine months later. We attributed this pleasant surprise to geography (our location had a good southwestern fetch), diligent maintenance, and dumb luck. Oysters sell in bags of 50 or 100 hand-counts, tagged in accordance with food-safety regulations. Oyster farmers, unless they have licenses beyond a standard commercial license, sell to wholesalers. Selling directly to retailers or any private party is illegal. And during certain months, oysters must be iced within established timelines to minimize the chances of the humans who eat them contracting vibriosis, an infection with ugly symptoms that in rare cases can be fatal.

Many farmers submerge their crops for winter and go home. In late November, we remove the floats, fill each bag three-fourths full with oysters, strap the bags to sections of aluminum ladders we retrieved from the town dump, and then haul them offshore in water at least 3 feet deep. This minimum depth prevents heavy ice from crushing our oysters. Aluminum ladders allow water flow underneath the submerged oysters. The technique is primitive, but it works. While modern approaches — such as OysterGro systems — represent much less annual labor (not to mention unnecessary dumpster-diving), such a system requires significantly more money.

Oysters aren’t voracious eaters in winter. They go dormant and “clam up” until water temperatures rise in spring. Some hearty farmers work 12 months each year, risking storm and ice damage to their oysters and hypothermic damage to themselves. Many year-rounders have land access to their sites. Our farm is accessed only by boat, and the harbor can ice up severely. Plus, the oysters’ growth rate slows. So, we sink them and skedaddle, done in mid-December, and we hibernate for the next three months.

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We established our business as an LLC, affording us some financial protection for the long haul. LLCs keep the business value separate from personal assets, so renewing our LLC became an annual exercise of importance. Winter was also a good time to repair damaged gear.

We bought more oysters and gear in our second year, putting in play a population that would replace our initial crop once sold. The growth rates remained impressive, and we sold 1,000 to 3,000 per week. We repeated this pattern in our third year, and by midpoint that season, we fully recovered all startup costs and operated in the black. We now run the farm on “house money,” no longer reaching into our own wallets to pay the bills.

So if oceanic acreage is available and you feel ambitious, don’t worry too much about the downsides. We’ve had to get towed because our boat broke down. We’ve spilled hundreds of oysters on the bottom through carelessness and equipment failure. We’ve had to shoo people from our farm. One day, I fell overboard. And no matter how much money you spend on waders, they’ll leak.

Rather, focus on the upsides. I wear a bathing suit to work on balmy days. I have no boss; I’m driven by weather and tides rather than hierarchy. You’ll encounter problems, but in the scheme of things, how difficult is it to deter ospreys from building nests on your gear? Farm-raising oysters keeps you in intimate touch with the natural world. It’s hard work, but when done in earnest, it’s its own reward.

Annual Operating Budget for Crooked River Shellfish Farm

  • Boat slip rental: $1,400
  • Boat insurance: $500
  • Acreage lease: $175
  • LLC renewal: $500
  • Supplies and equipment: $1,000
  • Oyster seed: $10,000
  • Fuel: $600
  • Tax preparation: $700
  • Miscellaneous fees and licenses: $300
  • Emergency fund: $2,000
  • Total: $17,175

The Scoop on Oysters

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  • Oysters are considered a keystone species, with a disproportionately large effect on their environment relative to their abundance. For example, parrotfish on the Great Barrier Reef scrape and clean the coral. Oysters remove damaging nitrogen from the water, which benefits other species.
  • Oysters can be eaten baked, grilled, fried, stewed, or raw. The most popular way is raw, shucked, and then served on the half-shell. Successfuly shucking oysters takes practice. An oyster takes 20 pounds of precise pressure at its hinge to open.
  • Oysters are high in protein, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. They also provide a source of zinc.
  • Oysters have merroir, tasting something of their point of origin.
  • Oysters are a culinary paradox. Aficionados consider them “the liqueur of the sea” while oyster haters refer to their phlegmatic appearance and texture as “sea snot.”
  • Oysters’ natural mortality rate represents a small percentage loss each year for oyster farmers.
  • Natural predators include oyster drills, crabs, sea stars, and snails.
  • Oysters have been farmed in the U.S. since at least the 1700s. Historically, some Native American tribes planted and cultivated shellfish.
  • Vibrio is a bacterium found in brackish waters that can concentrate in oyster tissue and infect humans who eat raw or undercooked oysters.
  • Farmed oysters are the third-highest-value seafood product in Massachusetts, behind lobster and sea scallops.

After a 35-year career in education, David Paling retired to become a full-time oyster farmer. He’s a freelance writer, and his nonfiction has appeared in more than 100 regional and national publications.


How profitable is oyster farming? ›

The latest estimates state that the US oyster farming industry generates over 16,000 direct and indirect jobs and an economic impact of over $2.2 billion dollars.

How many oysters can you farm in an acre? ›

It is estimated that one acre can produce nearly 750,000 oysters, which could filter between 15 and 40 million gallons of water daily.

What is needed for oyster farming? ›

Many oyster farmers grow their oysters with what's called an off-bottom system. In it, oysters are suspended near the surface of the water in baskets, bags, trays or cages called oyster condos, racks, Taylor floats or adjustable long-line systems. These devices let the oyster be held above the water part of the time.

Is oyster farming hard work? ›

To be a shellfish farmer means long days on your feet, embracing harsh weather while lifting heavy cages. It all takes a toll over time. But a day on the water is another dollar in your pocket, so you push through and persevere.

How long does a farmed oyster take to grow? ›

It takes 18 to 24 months for oysters to become adults or grow to market size, approximately 3 inches. Since growers only have a finite amount of land, they also only have a finite amount of oysters they can grow on their farm.

How long is the lifespan of an oyster? ›

An oyster becomes an adult when it turns one year old and can live as long as 20 years. Oysters can change their sex. In fact, they will often do it more than once. Juvenile oysters are called spat.

How many oysters do I need for 30 people? ›

A bushel of oysters will typically feed 4-6 people. If your guests are heavy oyster eaters, or if you will not be serving other food, you probably want to do 1 bushel for every 4 people. If your guests are light oyster eaters, or you are serving other food, you should be fine with 1 bushel for every 6-8 oyster eaters.

What state harvests the most oysters? ›

Louisiana produces more oysters than any other state in the country, which is good," Blitch said.

How much do oyster seeds cost? ›

Cultchless Seed Prices
Seed SizePrice per Thousand Diploid Disease Resistant* or Triploid Disease Resistant**Price per Thousand Diploid Wild
2-4 mm$11.75$9.50
4-6 mm$15.00$12.00
6-10 mm***$20.50$15.50
Dec 6, 2022

How long before you can harvest oyster? ›

At 12 to 18 months the oysters are ready for processing, inspection and grading before going to market.

Are oysters easy to grow? ›

Oysters are by far one of the easiest mushrooms to grow.

They can be grown on a bewildering variety of substrates, including hardwood sawdust, soy hulls, wheat straw, sugarcane, coffee grounds, banana leaves, cardboard, coco-coir… the list goes on!

Where do oysters grow best? ›

Oysters live in salty or brackish coastal waters, clustering on older shells, rock, piers, or any hard, submerged surface. They fuse together as they grow, forming rock-like reefs that provide habitat for other marine animals and plants.

Do oyster farms clean water? ›

Seaweed and shellfish aquaculture have been shown to provide ecosystem benefits. Because oysters are filter feeders, they help keep the water clean by removing algae, organic matter, and excess nutrients from the water column as they grow.

What temperature do oysters stop growing? ›

Once the water gets below 60, growth will slow, but won't really stop until it gets down to the low 40's; with that said, growth is effectively done below 50.

How long can oysters live out of water? ›

If properly cared for oysters can live out of the water in their shell for around 4 - 5 days. If not consumed within 5 days, please shuck them and then it's possible to store them for another 2-3 days in the fridge in a sealed container with their water.

How often do oysters reproduce? ›


A female oyster is known to produce upward of 100,000,000 eggs in a single season.

Can oysters grow in freshwater? ›

Oysters need salt in their water. They do best in brackish water and can live in seawater, but fresh water will kill them.

How rare is a pearl in an oyster? ›

Today, natural pearls are extremely rare. Only 1 in about 10,000 wild oysters will yield a pearl and of those, only a small percentage achieve the size, shape and colour desirable to the jewellery industry.

What is the largest oyster ever found? ›

The Guinness World Records' record for the largest oyster is a pacific oyster discovered in Denmark in 2013, that measured 13.97 inches in length and 4.21 inches in width.

What is baby oyster called? ›

When oysters reproduce, they spawn tiny larvae that freely navigate the water column until they find an appropriate habitat with a structure to settle on. Once the larvae permanently attach to a surface, they are known as spat.

How much does 1 bushel oysters feed? ›

Depending on the species and location of oysters, one bushel typically has 100 oysters, which feeds approximately four to six people.

What is the most oysters eaten in one sitting? ›

The world record for oyster eating is 46 dozen in 10 minutes and was set at the 2005 event by Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas.

How many oysters do I need for 150 people? ›

Q. How do I know how many oyster shuckers to get? A. At Bull and Oyster Roasts where oysters and clams are consumed quickly, we use the following rule: One shucker for every 150 people.

Who has the best oysters in America? ›

Salty and rich, Alabama oysters are among the most beloved in the country. In fact, the state was once the number one oyster producer in America. Like Louisiana oysters, Alabama oysters are triploids, so a farmed oyster like Isle Dauphin stays fat throughout the year.

Where in the US has the best oysters? ›

The 15 most delicious oysters any American could hope to eat
  • Moon Shoals (Barnstable, Massachusetts) ...
  • Blue Pool Oysters(Lilliwaup, Washington) ...
  • Kumamotos(Willapa Bay, Washington) ...
  • Island Creek Oysters(Duxbury, Massachusetts) ...
  • Hog Island Oysters(Marshall, California)
Feb 20, 2014

What state has the largest oyster industry? ›

Historically speaking, Alabama happens to be the largest processor of oysters in the United States. Nowadays, Alabama is at the forefront of the homegrown oyster market thanks to a group of dedicated farmers.

Can you farm raise oysters? ›

Farmed oysters live and grow in the same open waters as wild oysters. What's cool about oyster aquaculture is that the oysters are farmed in their natural habitat. Farmed oysters do not need to be fed – they eat the same food as wild oysters from algae-rich tides and waters.

Can you breed your own oysters? ›

Set up a large breeding tank, around 120,000 litres (32,000 US gal), and fill it ocean water that has been warmed. Put the oysters into the tank and leave them for 2 months to begin putting on a gonad, which will produce the gametes needed to breed your oysters.

Why not eat oysters in months without an R? ›

Foodie tradition dictates only eating wild oysters in months with the letter “r” – from September to April – to avoid watery shellfish, or worse, a nasty bout of food poisoning. Now, a new study suggests people have been following this practice for at least 4,000 years.

What temperature do oysters need to grow? ›

Oysters thrive in salinity that ranges from 14-28 ppt. The optimum water temperature for oysters to survive is between 68-90 degrees Fahrenheit, but adult oysters can tolerate water as cold as 38 degrees and as hot as 120 degrees for short periods of time.

How do you start an oyster mushroom farm? ›

Specifically oyster mushrooms in this example.
  1. Order Your Spawn, Substrate and Materials. You'll need to get at least your spawn, substrate and bags to start growing mushrooms. ...
  2. Get Your Substrate Ready. ...
  3. Pack the Substrate and Spawn Into Grow Bags. ...
  4. Incubate Your Bags. ...
  5. Fruit Your Mushroom Bags. ...
  6. Harvest Your Mushrooms.

Do oysters like sun or shade? ›

Oyster plant is ideal for use as a quick-growing groundcover, thriving in full sun to deep shade. Well-drained soils are a necessity since oyster plant is susceptible to a variety of leaf and especially root problems if over-watered. It is extremely drought tolerant, even growing in cracks in a concrete wall.

What is the best tasting oyster? ›

Well, here's our list of the five best eating oysters to start you on your way to be the oyster guru:
  1. Kumamoto Oysters. If you haven't tried these, you must! ...
  2. Stellar Bay Oysters. ...
  3. Grassy Bar Oysters. ...
  4. Miyagi Oysters. ...
  5. Malpeque Oysters.
May 10, 2013

Who has the best oysters in the world? ›

#1: Tasmania from Australia. Raised and harvested from the land down under, these plump Gigas oysters are deliciously creamy and adventurous in texture.

How many gallons can a oyster filter in one day? ›

Oysters feed by filtering algae from the water, ultimately removing nutrients from the water, which, in excess, can degrade the aquatic environment. A single adult oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water a day.

Is oyster farming good? ›

The ecological benefits of oyster agriculture are numerous, starting with a growing process that uses almost no greenhouse gas emissions, water, feed, fertilizer, or food. Larvae from certain farmed oysters, called diploids, escape from cages to seed the wild oyster population on their own.

How many pounds of oysters make a gallon? ›

Fresh Louisiana Oysters fully shucked - product arrives frozen. Approximately 70 - 120 select oysters, per 5lbs. 1 gallon of drained weight.

How long does it take to harvest oyster? ›

How long does it take for an oyster to grow? They take 2-3 years to grow to harvest size.

Is oyster farming Sustainable? ›

Shellfish aquaculture is a sustainable and green industry. Read more about seafood sustainability and how aquaculture supports sustainability through NOAA. Aquaculture gear can also have beneficial ecological impacts by creating structure and habitat.

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