Learn how these female oyster farmers are bringing bivalves to their communities and beyond.
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woman posing at lake dock
Credit: Hoopers Island Oyster Company

It takes a lot of grit and grind to be an oyster farmer. Early mornings can stretch into 10-hour plus days, there's pounds of gear to schelp, and sometimes you bundle up to go out on the boat when the temperature is in 30°F (or less). Yet it's Imani Black's, a hatchery technician at Hoopers Island Oyster Co., dream job. "It's so rewarding," says Black. "I love the science behind it and I think the longer I do it the more love I have for it."

women checking water testing
Credit: Hoopers Island Oyster Company

Why Oyster Farming Is Appealing

Oysters, whether you like them on the half shell, broiled, or grilled, are the fish of the moment. And as demand for the sustainable binary mollusks continues to soar (they help filter out pollutants in the water, create habitat for other marine life, and help to prevent coastal flooding and erosion), commercial oyster farming is booming with growers trying to keep up with demand. And yet the industry largely remains a male-dominated one. Black, along with her Hoopers Island Oyster Co. hatchery colleagues, manager Natalie Ruark, 26, and technician Alyssa O'Prey, 23, are some of just a few women oyster farmers on the East Coast. Though their numbers are small, they prove that the oyster industry is not just for men.

"It's not for the faint of heart," Ruark says. "It's physically tasking but it's not something a woman can't do. If anything we're three examples of what's possible." For nine months of the year the women spend their days either at a two-acre hatchery where, in a building containing tanks, they're responsible for taking care of millions of oysters at a time, or at the five-acre on-land and on-water nursery where young oysters are raised. They watch over and help along the early life stages of the oysters from the egg and sperm to oysters of about an inch in size.

How to Get Into Oyster Farming

"It's such a humbling experience," says Ruark, who came to the oyster industry organically. After working in a highly scientific laboratory (no windows, high security) she wanted to diversify her science career and get more fresh air, that's something she's found at Hoopers Island Oyster Co.

O'Prey grew up in New Jersey, attending a magnet environmental science high school, and earned a B.S. in Marine Science from Stockton University. She then worked for the Fish & Wildlife Service and two shellfish growers before joining the hatchery team. "I never thought I would be interested in aquaculture but I realized I didn't want to sit at a desk and this really fits me; being outside, growing algae, and I like that this is a sustainable industry," she says. After fertilization, oyster eggs-as many as 115 million!-are placed into tanks where they are fed algae by hand four to eight times. O'Prey, who grows the algae, has found the perfect mix of science and adventure in her work. "I come in and look at algae under the microscope. I'm under the fume hood and I'm working with chemicals and I love it, but then halfway through the day, I'm outside working with the oysters and I really love that."

man women working at lake dock
Credit: Hoopers Island Oyster Company

It's Hard, Physical Work

Once the oysters are 0.5 mm they are moved outdoors to the nursery, this is one of the most physically taxing parts of the job. In the nursery the women handle basket after basket of between 90 and 100 oysters at a time. Each basket can weigh 45-65 pounds and they are essentially working to keep millions upon millions of oysters alive.

When the oysters are about 25mm or five to six months old they're placed on Hooper Island Oyster Company's farms to grow in surface floats, bottom cages, or in bottom beds. During the other three months of the year, the offseason for breeding oysters, the women help out with these older oysters. "Working on a boat in the snow and it's 20-something degrees. It's definitely one of those earn-your-stripes moments," Ruark says.

"One of the main challenges we face is that we are automatically looked as not able to do certain things and it's frustrating because you know I'm fully capable of doing my job. It's not like I don't want anyone's help. It's just that, this is my job. I knew what I was signing up for and I want to do my job to the fullest of my ability like everyone else," Black says.

woman working in oyster farm
Credit: Hoopers Island Oyster Company

Women Working Together

The women feel a sense of camaraderie with the other female oyster growers they meet. "When you meet a woman doing what you do, you instantly have a bond, because you know how hard it is to really push through sometimes and you know how much grit and grind it takes to really stick it out." Black says.

Once the oysters reach between 18 months and two years old they're ready for market, ultimately ending up on plates along the East Coast through wholesale seafood markets serving restaurants and hotels including the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, Washington D.C's Old Ebbitt Grill, and Maryland's National Harbor Hotel. The oysters are also shipped directly to customers as far away as the Midwest and South.

Black, O'Prey, and Ruark love that they are creating something tangible that people get to enjoy and they hope to see more women becoming involved in aquaculture and oyster farming.

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