Meet Carlsbad Aquafarm: A Deep Dive into Oyster Farming (Part I)

"In the end, sustainable tastes better." - Slapfish
It is no secret that we here at Much Ado About Fooding are fans of the restaurant Slapfish. Not only do they serve up creative culinary concoctions but they are also intensely committed to providing their customers with sustainable seafood, sourced from eco-friendly and well-managed food systems. In partnership with Aquarium of the Pacific and Seafood for the Future, this beloved food-truck-turned-Huntington-Beach-restaurant has tried to educate its community and done a good job doing so so far. So we had to ask ourselves then, "What does it mean to be sustainable?" After tasting the dishes during their Summer of Sustainability and photographing them, we were luckily linked to the source of our favorite dish from the array: their Carlsbad Luna Oysters. Our thanks to dear friend Link Mathewson of Coast Magazine for the introductions and helping arrange with us and Rebecca Richards, Managing Director of Acacia Pacific Investments, a unique and rare opportunity to visit the Carlsbad Aquafarm.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the process though, let's turn a spotlight onto these oysters in the form you know them. These Luna oysters (Crassostrea gigas) are rated as the best choice through Santa Monica Seafood for oysters and are Pacific Oysters, the most widely grown bivalve worldwide. Though naturally their availability cycle runs October-May, the perk of being raised on a farm in Southern California is that they can be available year-round. They are a little smaller than most are used to, only growing 2"-2.5" in length, and look similar to Kusshi and Kumamoto Oysters. The shells are typically ivory though we saw some with gorgeous deep purple striations on them. As for the taste, we talk more about that later in Part IV where we devoured some.

"Carlsbad Aquafarm is committed to sustainable mariculture and pursuing a necessary balance between the demand for responsible seafood production and the preservation of our oceans’ resources."
We arrived at Carlsbad Aquafarm on a cool and slightly gloomy day (perfect for photography), ready to fill our curious minds with knowledge of oyster farming. There was no dearth of information that morning on our tour with Norman Abell at the aquafarm which resides on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, a shared property with its owner, NRG, a natural gas, on-demand power plant. What's unique about the aquafarm is it's Southern California's only shellfish aquafarm, growing eco-friendly mussel, oyster, clam, abalone, scallop, and culinary seaweed: Carlsbad Mediterranean Mussel; Carlsbad Luna, Blonde, and Del Sol Oyster; Carlsbad Green Abalone; and Carlsbad Red Ogo Seaweed with Carlsbad Speckled Scallop and Carlsbad Manila Clam coming in 2014. Since 1990, not only has the farm provided all of these food products for human consumption but it also grows live-feed (such as micro and macro algae, brine shrimp, and copepod for the marine aquaria trade. This is just one portion of the sustainable operation owners John Davis and Acacia Pacific Investments have been running in the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad. As with the aforementioned Slapfish connection, Carlsbad Aquafarm is also endorsed by the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Seafood for the Future organizations.

The first portion of our tour involved visiting the depuration tanks. Depuration, also known as a purification process, is necessary for shellfish processors; it involves tanks of purified seawater and an isolated time period to allow for natural filtering. Norman informed us that their water is filtered and UV treated to remove sand and grit and bacteria and viruses before being distributed into the tanks. The depuration process allows for intestinal content expulsion and is most effective with the right design and monitoring. This high level of attention to detail ensures that not only are their products clean in taste and feel but also free of potential disease-causing agents. Carlsbad Aquafarm has their mussels and oysters sit for 48 hours through this process while conducting various sampling lab tests via a third-party lab to check for water quality, tissue, biotoxins, bacteria, etc. Because the water is shallow, flow is more easily managed and the food-less seawater allows for quicker purging.

"Do restaurants buy directly from you?""Everything we do is wholesale, with the exception of farmers' markets, so restaurants buy from wholesalers and distributors. Restaurants don't buy direct from us. It's not a business model that we felt would work well (although we'd love to)."
The ones that we took a look at were packed in one-dozen bags for sale at farmers' markets though typically their buyers are commercial wholesale. We briefly met Victor who was in charge of product packing and watched as he methodically prepared cartons of oysters for their sale. In terms of direct selling to restaurants, Norman explained that it wasn't practical in regards to mileage, time, and even money considering the various restaurants they source to in San Diego, Orange County, Riverside County, Los Angeles, the central coast, San Francisco, and a smaller portion, nationwide. Nevertheless, those restaurants still do get a chance to visit the farm and test products beforehand, as many choose to do. In regards to direct selling to customers, you can try your luck at snatching Victor's one dozen bags at farmers' markets (Santa Monica on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Old Towne Orange on Saturdays, and Carlsbad on Wednesdays). Just keep in mind that perishability can be an issue if the product is not brought home and refrigerated soon after purchase.

[UPDATE: Part II, Part III, and Part IV now available here.] This post is only the first of four; Parts II, III, and IV will be featured on the remaining Mondays in September. Stay tuned for more information on this fascinating farm and its sustainable aquaculture practices. You can also visit! They are located at 4600 Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad, CA 92018 but are unfortunately closed to the public. What's that mean for you, the shellfish-loving fiend? Catch them at one of the farmers' markets or take a step into one of the many restaurants they source to, like Slapfish! 

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos are available on Facebook here.