Finding the pearl in the pandemic
By Doreen Leggett
Mike Dunbar was standing by his work truck and well-loved boat, looking at the cadet-gray waters of Lewis Bay, about to head out to fill a surprise, and very welcome, order of thousands of oysters.
“This is my office,” he said, grinning at the thought and the idea of harvesting as many oysters as he wanted after a year of harvesting next to nothing, except for deliveries destined for food pantries.
Conrad Caia, long-time Yarmouth shellfish constable, pulled up in a green truck to survey the landing by Englewood Beach. They exchanged waves before Caia drove away.
Twenty years ago, the two had stood at the same landing as Dunbar, who had recently landed back on the Cape, wanted to try his hand at aquaculture. He became the third in town.
“I wasn’t really familiar with it to be honest,” Dunbar said.
He had grown up in Yarmouth, graduated from Dennis Yarmouth High School in 1988. Like many Cape kids he spent a lot of time on the water, fishing and shellfishing recreationally with his dad.
He pointed around the bend toward the north side where he spent his time.
“I loved being out on the water,” Dunbar said.
He ended up going off Cape for college, New England Technical’s automotive program. When he was in Rhode Island he was still able to spend time on a bay, this time Naragansett.
“I rented an efficiency from a commercial quahogger and I used to go with him,” Dunbar said. “We used bullrakes … Those things were at least 30 feet long.”
His day job was at several dealerships and he landed back on the Cape in the mid-1990s. Nerve damage in his hand ended his career fixing vehicles, forcing him to a job behind a desk.
“I wasn’t fond of sitting in the office,” he said shaking his head.
Dunbar may never have celebrated his 20th anniversary as Dunbar Aquafarm if not for the tragedy of 9-11. In the economic fallout, he lost his job.
“I was thinking more and more about getting out on the water and doing commercial fishing,” Dunbar said. But he had two young boys at the time, so he figured he needed something that wouldn’t take him away from home so much: aquaculture.
He still has commercial licenses, and goes for striped bass and fluke with a rod and reel. But his farm takes up the vast majority of his time.
When he got started there were shellfish farms right next to him. But the industry hadn’t really taken off. Those two grants are much larger than the 3-and-a-half acre limit the town has in place now.
“It was a bit of a learning curve. I think there is a lot more information out there now,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar met Caia soon after the constable started his job. Caia had come from Aquaculture Research Corporation, A.R.C. in Dennis, famous for selling shellfish seed to farmers and growing their own. He had spent 10 years in charge of the algae-growing program, feeding tiny animals. So aquaculture is a passion of his and when asked, he’ll say that algae in Lewis Bay is quite incredible, particularly in the summer.
“Dunbar’s was the first lease I issued on my own,” Caia said. “I was glad that he came in and applied.”
There are a lot more prerequisites now, a class at the county being one of them.
“He is just very determined,” said Caia. “I guess you have to be.”
Ed Janiunas is a new neighbor of Dunbar’s in the waters off Great Island. A former stockbroker on Wall Street, Janiunas knew a lot of people who worked a lot of hours, it was the culture. But he says Dunbar has 90 percent of them beat.
“He is out there every day,” Janiunas said, no matter the weather.
“He comes in with a frozen beard and I look at him and say I’m not going to do that,” Janiunas added with an easy laugh.
Dunbar was a huge help to Janiunas when he started his aquaculture business in 2017 and started Sweetheart Creek Oyster Company. It’s a comfort to have Dunbar out there; both often work alone so it’s nice that someone has your back.
“He was a mentor to me,” Janiunas said. “He has the local knowledge and the more local knowledge you have the better.”
The two worked together to make sure a cable from the proposed wind farm didn’t run through the sensitive bay to make landfall near their farms. They were worried about sand and silt during construction affecting their livelihoods and the health of the bay.
Caia said that Dunbar thinks about the environment as well as his own bottom line. He plants oysters that spawn, as opposed to those that grow faster but don’t help seed the wild fishery.
Dunbar said his struggles in the beginning made his success since then all the sweeter. He finds it very satisfying to grow a little seed and get it to market, enjoyed by people. He has built a business and raised a family off that enjoyment.
“Now that I am able to do it and do it well there is definitely an appeal to it,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar started with quahogs, and then went half clams and half oysters, most recently all oysters.
“They grow faster and there is more money in it,” he said.
This year has changed his perspective. The demand for oysters fell off a cliff.
“We are so closely tied to restaurants, which is why COVID hit us so bad I think,” he said.
Dunbar remembers exactly where he was when he got the news.
“I got a phone call while I was getting an order ready and I was told not to bring it. During that initial period it was a 100-percent loss. Places were shut down.” State estimates say that oyster farmers are down about 70 to 80 percent overall.
With the summer almost a washout, there were a lot of oysters sitting on aquaculture farms unsold and getting bigger, maybe too big for market.
The Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, which has spent years trying to improve the business plans of the small growers across the Cape, received almost $100,000 from the federal rapid response program to find another home, or belly, for those oysters, which estimates put at 7 million.
They partly found the answer in a shucked oyster product. Dunbar was one of 76 growers who took advantage of the opportunity to sell 1000 oysters into the program.
Building off that program, and a critical introduction by the Fishermen’s Alliance to a funder, Catch Together, the Mass. Aquaculture Association applied for and received $108,000 to purchase oysters. Those oysters were shucked on Cape by Shellfish Broker (a new company founded in Chatham by long time shellfishermen) and delivered to food pantries, including the Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich.
The program wrapped up last month. Scott Soares, coordinator of the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, said 147,200 oysters ran through the program, helping 37 growers and three processors.
“We are looking at over 4,000 pints delivered to food banks,” Soares said, adding that pints were paired with recipes, such as oyster stew, that could be made with ingredients available at pantries.
He said the goal was to provide immediate relief to growers, meet a growing need at pantries, and introduce a new product.
Even before the challenge of COVID, the coming of fall always resulted in a glut of larger oysters that don’t look pretty on a plate: they are nicknamed the big uglies.
The pandemic threw that in stark relief.
In addition to losing money from not having a market, grant holders had to move their product off the grants to make way for seed as oysters need two years to grow.
“I was happy with the program,” Dunbar said. “I was able to get rid of some of those big oysters.”
To further diversify his business, Dunbar will be planting more quahogs and has also worked with the county to try and grow butter clams. Developing a market for shucked oysters is going to help build resiliency for the state’s oyster farming industry, Soares said. Shellfish Broker is still working with growers and selling shucked oysters even though the program has ended.
“Hopefully this will create a new market for the fall,” said Dunbar.