Life with oysters

Every morning we put on our work suites and start taking care of our oysters. It is windy today, cold north wind called Bura is blowing in our faces as we board the boat on this sunny day. It is the only reminder that summer is yet to come and there is still much work to be done.

Baby Oysters on netting

First thing that we have to do is check on the baby oysters which are very sensitive and Bream fish loves to pick them, stealing fruits of our hard work at the very beginning of their growth phase. They are held on plastic nets, which during the spring or autumn we set up western in the bay so that oysters can stick to them. At certain temperature, fully grown, mature oysters inseminate themselves. They keep larvae in their shells which is white in color in the beginning, becomes grey afterwards and in the final stage it goes almost black. It is because larvae is a microscopic shell which first grows muscle (white), then it starts to grow outer shell (black) before it is released by the shell to flow with the current. In the past, plastic nettings didn’t exist, farmers used branches of oak tree native to the land, Česvina – Quercus ilex. Records show that oyster farming existed in Mali Ston bay since Roman times. The oldest written record from Dubrovnik archives note that plots of seabed were assigned to certain families for oyster farming, This used to be rock bottom flatbeds, where farmers would tie branches to rocks and lay them down on seabed, Branches would float beneath the sea surface. Today, we are using floaters for which we hang cemented oysters to. In these times everything is about the speed of production to satisfy the demand, using plastic to grow – plastic ropes, plastic nettings. It is very difficult to keep up the work the way our grandfathers did, but hopefully one day people will realise that it is not about the high productions, but preservation of sea life as it used to be and keeping it balanced so it doesn’t disappear. 

Lanterns for second stage of growing oysters

Once the baby oysters have grown to 3 cm in size, we have to take them out from nettings and clean of all algae and animals that grow on them, because growing oysters is not just about them, they form ecosystem around them like symbiotic animals, plants etc. After they are cleaned, we put them in lanterns – several floor round plates held by smaller netting to prevent Bream fish from eating them. It then matures in the sea, with periodic cleaning of algae so they have enough water flow to feed themselves. Average oyster filtrates around 30 litres of sea per hour. They are hard workers and it requires a lot of hard work to farm them. Our scratched and scarred hands are living proof of that. 

After we finish checking the baby oysters, we are taking our boat to mature oyster farm. This is where we take out mature oysters. They are held on rope, two by two, glued together in pairs by cement and with rope passing trough. We will take out 150 pieces today.

Mature oysters on ropes in Mali Ston Bay

First we use a winch to take out the rope which is very heavy since it has cement and mature oysters on it, ready for consumption in their third year of growth.  After we pull the string with oysters out on the boat, we have to separate them from cement which is holding them to the rope. Some of them are dead, their shells gape wide and the fish has eaten it. About 30% of oysters don’t find their way to the stomach, 3 years is a long time in which they can get eaten by fish or simply polluted. Sturdy knives are used to separate them from cement and we must use gloves as a protection for our hands. Oyster shells are very sharp and can make big cuts on our hands, stopping us from hard work the next day. 

Mature oysters harvested from the sea cemented together on a rope.

After we roughly clean the oysters, we are taking them to the worker boat, where we clean them further by hands and put them in drumroll to clean all the cement residue and algae, as well as seabed dirt. After that it is time to prepare them for serving. Nothing can compare to fresh oyster eaten directly from the sea with a splash of lemon and a glass of local white wine. When you buy oysters in the store, they have already lost a bit of their juice and freshness. 

Separated oysters from the rope before the last cleaning

Our next stop is a big boat Bogutovac. This is the place where we serve our guests, friends and family with oysters and white wine. Opening an oyster is art as it takes thousands of oysters to perfect it. You have to hold it in a proper way, insert the knife and make a left turn, in order to separate its muscle that is attached to the shell. If you don’t do it properly, tender oyster meat will be punctured and it will leak the juice and look poorly.

Fresh oysters served directly from the sea with a splash of lemon

We are serving oysters for our friends today. We will relax, have some wine and few laughs. All the passers by join us for few minutes, and we share our daily catch with them. It is wonderful to see how your hard work effects people, puts heartwarming smile on their face, and lifts their spirit. When the night sets we go to our homes, to our families, to have a good night sleep. Because tomorrow with the sunrise, we have to go and tend to oysters…