Out on the water with an oyster farmer in winter

The temperature was a brisk 35 degrees. The sun, high in the sky, reflected off the calm water. Small waves distorted its glare as its ray reached as far as the horizon. The wind whipped strong gusts against the boat, but the vessel didn’t seem to mind. Dressed in a black and orange snowsuit that zipped all the way up to his neck, Steven Schnee moved around the rocking boat with ease.

It’s cold, the kind of cold that seeps into your bones, but it doesn’t bother Schnee.

“I love doing it. A little hard work is a good thing. Keeps me healthy, keeps me fit,” he said. “I love being outside. I love being out on the water.”

As the owner of Founders Oyster Farm, he has spent many winter days like this one maintaining this aquaculture practice. 

“I try to pick a good day, on a day where it’s sunny and maybe in the 30s, not windy,” he said. “It’s a perfect day to go out.”

Out on the water, Schnee’s peppery gray hair flipped back and forth as the wind changed. He sat down on the edge of his boat, named Grey Hawk, and pulled on a line that led into the depths of the ocean. Hanging off the slippery rope were strings of glistening sea plants that resembled algae. Schnee pulled on the rope until he could attach it to a machine that lifted the oyster racks out of the water.

As it rose from the depths, a strange, slippery substance hung off the cage’s exterior, the same substance that clung to the ropes. Schnee said it’s called slip gut.

“[It’s] is a growth that happens in the colder months, which we’re able to clean off so that the oysters have unencumbered flow inside the bags so that they could grow a little bit during the winter time,” he said.

Schnee maneuvers the rack and gently sets it on deck. He opens up the racks to reveal two rows of oyster bags made out of a dense mesh material. He pulls one out and vigorously shakes it, before dunking it in the water several times. The oysters ricochet off each other, sounding like falling rain. He then opens up the bag and dumps the oysters into a metal crate, revealing their bright whites and hues of brown. With his bright orange rubber gloves, he sorts through them, quickly distinguishing between market size and too small. The large ones are lucky enough to eventually be enjoyed by his family and friends, but the small ones go back in the bag and into the water.

“In the winter time, there’s not a lot of algae for them to feed on. So they’re almost hibernating until the springtime when the water warms up and the algae is in the water again.” he later said. “Then they start growing again. This is basically a resting period.”

Back on the water, Schnee grabs a hose and a long handled scrub brush from the deck floor and starts cleaning the racks, ridding them of the slip gut invaders. He pushes the nozzle and water comes out in full force, bouncing off the surroundings and sticking to his round tortoise shell glasses. Once the racks are clean enough, he slips the bags back into them and pushes them back into water, where they slowly sink back down.