A.R.C. Shellfish Hatchery – our newest partner – has been in the business of breeding clams and oysters for almost five decades. It is the only large scale commercial shellfish hatchery in Massachusetts and just one of a handful in the Northeast.

The entrance to A.R.C. Shellfish Hatchery in Dennis, Massachusetts

A.R.C.’s primary business is producing seed clams and oysters for hundreds of individual shellfish farmers and municipalities, who then grow these seeds to maturity over the next 2-3 years. I recently toured their Cape Cod facility to learn how on earth this little business sells over 100 million shellfish annually.

"The first step is to select a sacrifice specimen, and hope for a male.” Cheryl, who has worked at A.R.C. for 27 years as a sort of master breeder, assured me there is a relatively reliable way of stimulating male clams. "I just tease the tissue", she said.  At that point, I did not inquire further.

A.R.C. President Rick and Spawning Manager Cheryl

A dozen or so of the best-of-the-best1 clams are placed alone in small buckets of seawater, and a few droplets of sperm are dropped into each one. One cannot tell if a shellfish is male or female from the outside, but no matter: the presence of sperm in the water tells the animal that everyone else is spawning, so it does too, by releasing its own sperm or eggs into the water. For females, the water appears slightly carbonated. From there, Cheryl and team work to find the right ratios by combining buckets in a very precise way.  Of course, this carefully orchestrated process seeks to mimic what naturally occurs in the wild, where wiggling microscopic sperm have no trouble locating free-floating eggs (just 70 microns wide - about the width of a human hair)…in a 41 million square mile ocean.

As Cheryl was explaining this to me, I asked if she ate shellfish. “Gosh no, they’re our kids!” she gleamed. “I eat scallops… but we don’t often grow those here.”  The way she said scallops had the slightest tone of derision.

About a month later, there are 2-3 million new shellfish; indistinguishable from grains of sand to the touch. Sizing is critically important in this business – smaller larvae are acceptable, but they need to be grown in similarly sized groups. By stacking pans with ever finer screens, one atop the other, and gently shaking – not unlike panning for gold – the smallest fall to the bottom while the largest sit on top.

Millions of baby quahogs being screened
Baby quahogs under a microscope
The hatchery

At this point, they are ready to move to the nursery. Filtered seawater flows over them continuously for the next few months, until they reach sizes of 2mm (about the thickness of a nickel) or more.  These “teenagers” are hearty enough to move to outdoor storage, where they are again sorted for sale.

Naturally, some problems come up. For example, oysters naturally and permanently “stick” to fixed objects as they go through metamorphosis, presumably because they cannot swim. Sticking to something makes them less likely to be eaten.  In the wild this means rocks, boats, docks, etc. At A.R.C., it would mean either the side of their container or each other, both equally bad.  Imagine your seafood tower containing a messy ball of oysters all inseparably clumped together. The solution? Cheryl places a few handfuls of ground up oyster shells in with the babies.  This satisfies their need to clump; they glue themselves to the broken shell, and nobody is the wiser.

Another problem: shellfish eat…a lot. So A.R.C. produces a massive amount of algae.

Teenager pens

Enter Lisa. Lisa’s job is to keep Cheryl’s kids fed. 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Someone is in this facility, feeding clams and oysters and monitoring the growing algae at midnight on Christmas Eve. Even dairy farming, known for its early mornings (the cows must be milked twice a day, every day, no matter what the weather) allows operators to take their eyes off of the cows for a few moments. Not so for baby shellfish and algae.  

Part of Lisa’s job is overseeing the company’s “crown jewels,” which is nothing more than a closet full of tiny jars with various varieties of algae cultures that A.R.C. has been growing for over 45 years. Every day, she and her team scale these small cultures up to a full 800-liter tank before they are ready to be devoured by the hungry baby clams in the other room. One variety of algae takes 3 days, the other 10. Why two varieties?  “Well, you wouldn’t be very healthy if all you ate was broccoli, would you?” Lisa smiles.

“We are in the risk management business” says Rick, A.R.C.’s president. Indeed, there are redundancies of all sorts – an on-site generator, algae stored offsite in an “undisclosed” location, insane amounts of testing and retesting for bacterial growth, not to mention the 24/7 care.

The business has seen existential threats over the years.  Hurricanes, bacterial growth in their algae, and of course Covid, which decimated shellfish demand.  But the most existential one came from a surprising place: the ground beneath their feet.  As is all too common for many farmers these days, the value of the real estate – beachfront property on Cape Cod Bay – had so far eclipsed the value of the business that it became a threat to their existence.

Lisa's Algae Department scales up from small cultures to 800-gallon tanks every day of the year
Lisa's next gen algae operation is more efficient and precise

The company supports over 1,600 jobs in the region - mostly in the form of independent shellfishers (primarily sole proprietors) who lay the seeds in trays and grow them to maturity over the next 2-3 years.  Without A.R.C., these jobs were all on the line.  And when the prior owners needed to sell in 2015, with the help of the State and the town land trust, which put most of the land into a permanent easement, new local investors were able to keep the business afloat.

Walden Mutual’s new loan will allow A.R.C. to purchase more advanced algae growing equipment, further renovate their facility, and continue to serve the region for decades to come.  We love the operators of the business and their approach to risk management, but we also love their impact on an vital fishery for the region. And that’s not to mention the importance of oysters from an environmental standpoint – a single oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water each day!

We are honored to have A.R.C. as a partner.

1 Completely on their own accord, A.R.C.’s partner farmers often bring back their most prized shellfish exclaiming “you guys have got to breed this guy!”…this pure goodwill makes up a not-insignificant portion of their breeding stock