Well before dawn, when I arrive at the Carlsbad Aquafarm, the place is silent, peaceful…a spell broken when I occasionally happen upon the farm’s resident Great Blue Heron stalking its prey in shoreline reeds scanning for breakfast. Its broad wings waft in the morning air, flapping like an unfurling jib on a bowsprit, then fading in the rising din of distant morning commute on the 5. A platoon of vigilant Brown Pelicans and Double-breasted Cormorants are sentinels perched on the farm’s barrels and ball floats, riding on tides, half-submerged from the increasing weight of our plump blue mussels and blonde oysters growing below.
Our historic shellfish farm is nestled within a tranquil, sleepy lagoon, transected by the busiest freeway on the West Coast and a Sante Fe Railroad trestle. The Pacific Surfliner’s horn echoes across the lagoon as the morning commuter train rumbles over the timbered trestle, its horn repeating in increasingly distant, plaintive chords, as the train pulls in to the nearby Carlsbad Village train depot. Yet, within the incongruous juxtaposition of modern life’s pace and rhythm of an ancient wetland, there is harmony, there is Satoumi.
By 6 am our crew is busy donning their rubber slickers, boots and work gloves, gearing up for the day ahead. Our intrepid farm remains the only oyster farm on a stretch of California coastline running from San Diego, well past Point Conception, up 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 ecoservices oyster farms provide to coastal waters, California has only a handful of oyster farms due to the state’s complex, time-consuming regulatory process and onerous permitting requirements. The City of Carlsbad, in partnership with SDG&E, stands as a rare exception in its far-sighted support for establishing the first shellfish farm in all Southern California.
Over its 50-year history the farm has become a highly regarded national model of sustainable aquaculture. Smart, efficient and ecologically compatible with the coastal environment, where the high quality of our shellfish and an ecologically healthy lagoon serve as the guiding principles by which we gage our success. Our modest oyster farm has become a treasured part of the life, culture, character and brand of Carlsbad, a welcoming beach community with a deep, 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 Carlsbad’s finest seafood restaurants and its enviable list of world-class destination resort spa hotels.
Shellfish aquaculture research began in Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon through a Sea Grant awarded to pioneering scientists from San Diego State University in early 1960’s. Their work focused on determining which species would be best suited to grow in the lagoon, which had, just then, been reconnected to the Paciﬁc Ocean. They concluded that shellﬁsh aquaculture could be commercially viable while also providing ecological beneﬁts to that would protect and enhance health of the newly reclaimed lagoon. Since one oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of seawater in a single day, a legion of millions of oysters could consume thousands of tons of algae from the lagoon that would otherwise reduce its water clarity, preventing sunlight from reaching the bottom where Eelgrass creates new habitat native flora and fauna.
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. NRG’s management recognized the environmental and economic importance of the Carlsbad Aquafarm, and its value to the City of Carlsbad, as an ecological resource, and building its brand as a beach town with a working waterfront where people still earn their living by producing shellfish lines of unrivaled quality.
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 varieties of shellfish resilient to increasing ocean acidification. Other farm Blue Tech innovations include new open-ocean aquaculture technologies, methods of high pressure cold pasteurization of vacuum packed, pre-shucked shellfish that extends shelf life, and freshwater fog harvesting, multi-trophic fresh and saltwater aquaponics powered by fuel cells running on fish waste biogas, high altitude wind and solar energy, and hydrokinetic turbines.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) State of World Fisheries Report, “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 entrepreneurs, farmers, and shellfish hatchery specialists is essential. Once again, the Carlsbad is leading the way with the development of aquaculture internship program in conjunction with MiraCosta Community College. Carlsbad Aquafarm is also developing an in-depth shellfish aquaculture training program with San Diego State University and the California State University at Monterey Bay. Beyond the classroom, these aquaculture programs build leadership and professional experience through 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, from inoculating microalgae in incubator flasks to culturing thousands of gallons of algae in greenhouse bioreactors. They learn the art and science of conditioning and spawning broodstock that have been selected based on their most desirable traits, such as farm yield, meat content, flavor, mouthfeel, depth of their shell cup, shell hinge characteristics, and shell color patterns.
Our interns learn how to operate a shellfish nursery where they grow microscopic larvae and learn how to “set larvae on cultch” where they become juvenile spat and later seed for planting. They learn how to deftly maneuver a 40’ steel harvest barge through rafts of longlines and spreader backbones buoyed by floats, while guiding a 3-ton hydraulic crane to hoist up hundreds of grow-trays packed with thousands of oysters, and then gingerly land them on the barge deck. Then they must pilot the barge ashore, where the oyster are tumbled, washed, processed, depurated, tested, counted, packaged, tagged, chilled, and delivered to impatient seafood market mongers and demanding chefs who accept nothing less than the finest shellfish for their customers and patrons. Then there are longlines of mussel that must be stripped, washed, declumped, depurated, tested, debyssed, weighed, tagged, packaged, chilled and delivered to customers. HACCP procedures and meticulous record-keeping are mandatory, and subject to constant inspection by the Department of Health Enforcement Officers and FDA food 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 is intended to help interns acquire the skills they will need to become a valued part of the next, generation of shellfish farmers, right here in Carlsbad, California.
In addition to aquaculture internships, the farm hosts 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 few brave souls, 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.
Although oyster and mussel farming in Agua Hedionda Lagoon will soon celebrate its 50th Anniversary, shellﬁsh have been harvested in Southern California’s coastal lagoons by native people over 12,000 years ago, when the New World’s ﬁrst people made their earliest journeys down the North American West Coast, subsisting largely on a diet of mussels, clams, scallops, oysters, abalone, edible seaweeds, ﬁshing and hunting seals and sealions, with limited terrestrial hunting forays. However, some hunting trips led to inland migration by hunting bands and their families, which required adaptations to new environments.
For eons, primeval, west coast lagoons flourished as habitats for marine mollusks, where untold, countless generations of shellfish have continuously lived for over 150 million of years. At the Carlsbad City offices, a 75 million year-old fossilized Nautiloid, forbearer of the modern nautilus, found in Carlsbad, is displayed.
Coastal estuaries fed by fresh water streams are especially abundant in diverse marine life and wild game. These sites were highly sought encampment sites for the area’s earliest explorers. About 16,500 years ago native people began traveling southward along the coast, making camp along the shores of estuaries where freshwater flowed. Coastal food was abundant, but freshwater was scarce. These were the highly preferred places they came to quench their thirst, replenish provisions, and harvest the bounty of wetland wildlife.
While ancient shellfish middens bear witness to the first Americans’ sojourn along Carlsbad’s coastal watershed, far more artifacts remain out of reach, hidden in submerged cultural landscapes offshore. Many archaeologists believe that the earliest human arrivals on the North American continent traveled southward along the coastline, primarily by boat and foot, fishing, hunting, beachcombing and foraging for shellfish and edible seaweeds along the way. Finding these earliest human settlements is daunting.
We have much to learn from these remarkable explorers, among humanity’s greatest of grandparents, who traveled and survived without the benefit of maps, charts or an oral tradition, as they braved unknown challenges they encountered on an epic journey along the Bering sea’s stormy coastal waters, down west coast, eventually reaching the stormy waters of Tierra del Fuego. Finding their ancient encampment sites, where the confluence of ocean and freshwater once met in the drowned estuaries of the distant past, has become the focus of intense archaeological research. The challenge is that most of those ancient sites have long since been submerged hundreds of feet below the surface, and covered with tons of sediment, due to 16,000 years of steadily rising seas from mile-high, continental ice sheets of the last glacial maximum.
Archaeologists, marine ecologists and oceanographers are investigating the role kelp forest ecosystems played in the migration of maritime peoples from Asia to the Americas near the end of the Pleistocene. Kelp forests, some of the most productive habitats on earth, dominated the cool nearshore rocky coastlines of the North Pacific from Japan to Baja California and again along South America’s Andean coastal zone. These kelp forests sheltered abundant troves shellfish, sea urchins, fish, sea otters, seals, and sea lions. These nearshore habitats absorbed wave energy, becalming waters for anchored fishing and hunting, providing a safe passage, spanning thousands of miles, for the early, maritime migrants to the New World.
On June 1st 1834, during the H.M.S. Beagle’s survey of Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Charles Darwin, made the following journal entry, “I can only compare these great aquatic forests … with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical forests. Yet if in any country, a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp. Amidst the leaves of this plant, numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the numerous cormorants and fishing birds, the otters, seals, and porpoise, would soon perish also; and lastly, the Fuegians … would … decrease in numbers and perhaps cease to exist.”
The Yagan of Patagonia, the southernmost indigenous people on earth, were a canoe-traveling people. Their traditional territory was the cold, stormy waters south of Tierra del Fuego, and the islands southward to Cape Horn, which mariners dubbed “the sailors’ graveyard.” For more than ten thousand years, nomadic Yagan fishers and hunters, paddled voyaging canoe-motherships, and tiny canoes stitched together from strips of bark of the Coigüe tree, and covered with seal skin. The women and children paddled the canoes, and diving naked in the frigid waters to anchor their canoes in kelp beds, and gather abalone, mussel, clams and crustaceans. In their canoes they tended tiny fires smoldering on beds of mud and sand, which they brought ashore to warm they seal skin huts they pitched on the beaches and make camp for a few nights. The men paddled into deeper waters, fishing for pelagic fish from larger seaworthy, wooden plank canoes, or join their families in the kelp forests, to go spearfishing for seals and sea lions. Today, an international border passes through the center of traditional Yagan territory, down the center of the Beagle Channel.
Sadly, Darwin’s foreboding prophesy will soon come to pass. Cristina Calderón, born May 24, 1928, is the last living, full-blooded Yagan person (native Fuegian) and the only remaining native speaker of the Yagan language. With her granddaughter Cristina Zarraga, and her sister Úrsula Calderon, she published a book of Yagan Grandmother Story-telling, called “Hai Kur Mamashu Shis” (I Want to Tell You a Story) in 2005.
Hai kur mamashu chis is a narrative journey through the ancient, misty landscape of the Yagan of old, a people with a unique culture, rich in character, customs and beliefs. These stories take place under the Patagonian skies and over the waters of Tierra del Fuego, in the Yagan’s larger voyaging canoes, around their eternal burning fires amid immense mountains that rise from the sea. Cristina describes “a landscape that has always been open to the passage of humankind… back to a time when birds and people talked with each other, to a time when there was an understanding of all that exists, that included humans.” Her ancient stories bring us closer to the core of human nature, to our deepest levels of being. The deeds, the values and anti-values, the tricks and heroic actions, can lead to our transformation, to a new beginning.
Cristina Calderón has been recognized by the Chilean National Council of Culture and the Arts as a “Living Human Treasure” in the framework of the Convention for the Safeguard of Immaterial Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 2003. *
What survival skills and sheer physical abilities did this early maritime explorers possess that allowed them to accomplish such spectacular feats? What foods nourished their bodies and allowed them, not only to survive, but flourish amid the thousands of islands and western coastlands of two vast continents?
Their mastery of boat building, crafting fishhooks from abalone shells, and bones of fish and sea mammals, flaking razor sharp blades and points for spearfishing, adept beachcombing kills, were well-developed before they ever ventured from Asia’s northern rocky coastlines and crossed into the New World. Fossilized bones from butchered pelagic fish indicate considerable skill as fishers in deeper waters far from shore. Remnant fossils indicate sporadic hunting and opportunistic foraging for seabird and turtle eggs from ancient coastal rookeries and nests. Shellfish middens, flaked stone blades and fluted projectile points are among the abundant, archaeological evidence of the very first, early human inhabitants in the New World.
Shellfish were among their most reliable sources of sustenance they found along the virgin coastal waters, serving as a healthy foundation for their predominately seafood diet. Their seafood meals consisted of high energy shellfish, crustaceans, fish, urchins, eggs and seaweeds, bursting with proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant astaxanthins, carotenoids, vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B2, B3, B12, folic acid, and minerals iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, potassium and selenium. Few popular diets promoted today can hope to compete with the remarkably healthy diet of the first Americas. This is a painfully ironic development since the modern American diet is among the most unhealthy in the world, and has led to an unpredicted obesity epidemic.
Archaeologists and marine ecologists have joined forces with deep sea ocean explorers to take a deeper dive in exploring the “Coastal Migration Hypothesis” and the relationship to what some archaeologists call the “kelp highway,” which intermittently stretches from Hokkaido and the northern islands of Japan, the Sakhalin Islands and coastlands of the East Siberian sea, across the Aleutian Islands and down west coast of North America eventually reaching the kelp forests of the Andean Coast of South America.
We need to find our way forward as a people, as a species, to a new future along a new Kelp Highway. Although we cannot forage and fish our way along a lost primeval, pristine coastline, teeming with wildlife and natural wonders…we can take steps to protect and restore the habitats and free ranging wildlife that is our heritage and take steps become closer to that natural world, and be in harmony with that world.