by Thomas Grimm
7 February 2018
Life on the Farm

Well before dawn, when I arrive at the Carlsbad Aquafarm, the place is silent, peaceful…a spell broken when I happen upon the farm’s resident Great Blue Heron stalking its prey amid the shoreline reeds for breakfast. Its broad wings suddenly flap like an unfurling jib, and then fade in the rising din of distant morning commuters on the 5. Brown Pelicans perch as watchful sentinels on floats riding the incoming tide. Each float is half-submerged, weighted down by lines heavy with mussels growing below.

Our historic shellfish farm sits along a tranquil, sleepy lagoon, transected by a Santé Fe Railroad trestle. The Surfliner’s horn echoes across the lagoon as the morning commuter train rumbles over the timbered trestle, its horn sounds increasingly distant chords, as the train pulls into the Carlsbad Village depot. Yet, within the incongruous juxtaposition of modern life’s pace and rhythm of an ancient wetland, there is Satoumi…the Japanese term for harmony between man and coastal ocean waters.

By 6 our crew is busy donning rubber slickers, boots and gloves, gearing up for the day ahead. Our little farm remains the only oyster and mussel farm on a stretch of California coast running from San Diego, past Point Conception, 350 miles north to Morro Bay. After that, the next nearest oyster farm is in Tomales Bay, north another 200 miles. Although valued for the eco-services oyster farms provide to coastal waters, California has just a handful of shellfish farms due to the state’s complex, time-consuming regulatory and onerous permitting requirements. The City of Carlsbad, in partnership with NRG and SDG&E, stands as a rare exception in their far-sighted support for hosting the first shellfish farm in Southern California.

Over its 50-year history, Carlsbad Aquafarm has become a regarded as a model of sustainable aquaculture. Our oyster farm has become a treasured part of the life, culture, character and brand of Carlsbad, a welcoming seaside community with an abiding connection with the rhythm and life of the ocean. The farm enhances Carlsbad’s brand as an attractive beach town with its own, historic, working waterfront. Carlsbad is renowned for seafood specialties made from its locally grown shellfish, which grace the plates of the region’s finest seafood.

Shellfish aquaculture research began in the Agua Hedionda Lagoon over six decades ago. Over time SDSU scientists joined forces with shellfish farmers to establish a shellfish farm in the lagoon and began growing mussels, oysters, clams and scallops. The aquafarm was supported by NRG Energy, which operates the Encina Power Station, and acts as the environmental steward for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Continuing Carlsbad’s tradition of “Blue Tech” innovation that began half a century ago with SDSU, today the aquafarm is working with USC’s Wrigley Marine Lab, selectively breeding oysters resilient to increasing ocean acidification.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production sector in the world.” If California is to take advantage of this opportunity, leadership in training the next generation of aquaculture farmers is essential. Once again, the Carlsbad is leading the way, developing an aquaculture internship program with MiraCosta Community College and an aquaculture training program with San Diego State University and Cal State University at Monterey Bay. Beyond the classroom, these programs provide exciting, hands-on, training, where students work with marine scientists and seasoned professionals. At the Carlsbad Aquafarm interns are immersed in every facet of commercial aquaculture, where they learn the art and science of selectively breeding broodstock based on traits, such as yield, meat content, flavor, shell cup, and shell color patterns.

Our interns learn how to “set larvae on cultch” that later become seed for planting; how to maneuver a harvest barge through rafts of longlines buoyed by floats while guiding a crane to hoist grow-trays packed to the brim with oysters, and gingerly land them on the barge deck. They take part in every aspect of oyster farming, from tumbling, and packaging to delivering the shellfish to chefs who accept nothing less than the finest shellfish for their restaurant customers. They learn how to harvest longlines heavy with mussel that must be stripped, washed, packaged, chilled and delivered to customers. Their training includes mastering HACCP procedures and meticulous record-keeping that must pass muster from ever-vigilant health inspectors. Internships are about real-world, practical experience, and acquiring the know-how that can only come through individualized training from our seasoned staff, guidance from faculty, and intensive interaction from State and Federal Inspectors. All the rigorous training and professional interaction helps interns acquire the skills they will need to become a part of the next, generation of shellfish farmers, here in Carlsbad, California.

In addition to aquaculture internships, the farm hosts educational tours ranging from school groups and scout troops to university researchers, Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation staff members and volunteers, Community Chamber of Commerce members, who come to learn about shellfish aquaculture and see City of Carlsbad’s working waterfront firsthand. Visitors, young and old, are afforded a rare glimpse into Southern California’s only working oyster and mussel farm. For locals, it’s part of their heritage, and a source of pride. For a brave few, it’s a chance to learn how to shuck and slurp down their first raw oyster, while for more experienced connoisseurs, it’s an opportunity to treat their pallet to the finest oysters grown anywhere.

In addition to the process of spawning, rearing and harvesting shellfish, visitors learn how shellfish help keep their scenic lagoon and coastal waters clean and healthy, and walk away with an appreciation of our need to live and work in harmony with the sea.

Play the video to see more of how we work