Where life begins -- for oysters and clams
One hatchery makes 1300 Cape jobs possible, and that’s a conservative estimate
Millions, hundreds of millions, even billions over the decades, pouring out of one facility hunkered in the Dennis dunes, with Cape Cod Bay for a front yard and Chase Garden Creek at the back.
They emerge from a unique manufacturer that actually creates life, by conservative estimates also making more than 1300 “blue” Cape jobs possible, a huge economic driver most people don’t know or appreciate.
A.R.C., Aquacultural Research Corporation, has a main mission: Spawn oysters and clams 19 times a year, get those little critters to a millimeter across (far smaller than your pinky fingernail, more like grains of sand) by feeding them homegrown algae, then keep them growing in upwellers around the Cape until they’re big enough to sell to scores of growers who work the flats, as well as every town that seeds recreational areas and makes money selling permits to scratch.
Living bivalves under the microscope.
For a long time A.R.C. was pretty much alone in the Northeast, and there are only a handful of comparable hatcheries nationwide, though none can say they were spawned in 1960. A.R.C.’s genesis story is Forrest Gump-like; two guys stationed on a submarine in the 1950s were reading a Popular Mechanics magazine article about some new-fangled thing called “aquaculture.” They got intrigued, and one was from the Avon cosmetics family so had the money to give it a try on Cape Cod.
It was “Cultured Clam” for a time, and the founders held it together until the next generation took over around 1980, Dick Kraus, Gail Hart, and Sue Machie. Then new investors, with a lot of public and non-profit support, engaged in 2015, rebuilt, and forged ahead.
The plant sits on 10 acres, deed restricted so only aquaculture production, research and education is allowed. Another 30 acres was sold into public ownership and conservation.
There’s zero chance this facility could be built today — on a coastal dune with lots of erosion, a rusting sea wall holding back tides and sand, a manmade lagoon, wells pumping pristine water from below. But it was born before zoning and environmental rules, “grandfathered” as they say, so continues, 25 people commuting to work along a marginal road often covered in blowing sand at the edge of the bay.
Rick Sawyer, president of A.R.C. since 2019.
There’s a mad scientist vibe to the place, with cauldrons of growing algae, also a machine that looks like R2-D2’s big brother doing the same higher tech. The focus is organic; induce oysters and clams to spawn on demand, nurse tiny spat, keep bacteria at bay. Eight sizes of baby oysters and clams (some scallops too) depart, the bigger ones more expensive to buy but faster to harvest, sturdier, so that’s a cost-benefit calculation each grower makes.
The darker the water, the more algae.
R2-D2’s big brother grows algae a higher tech way.
Decades ago the owners wanted to get a sense of how their seed was doing in the wild, so bred a clam that had distinctive telltale stripes raying across gray shells; “notata” they were called. To this day you still see those clams mixed into the gene pool, passing a trait that has survived many clam generations.
Now is when seed heads out to hundreds of local growers. A.R.C. also grows for market but does not sell locally to avoid competing with customers; its harvest is flung around the United States, Europe and Singapore, under the name “Chapin Sea Farms.”
Warming waters are changing the playingflats; A.R.C. is experimenting with breeding stock that might thrive at somewhat higher water temperatures, but warmth also encourages bacteria and that’s not good. The vulnerable site always needs attention, and growing algae (key to producing more seed) always requires tinkering, thinking, and innovation.
So in one way this is a complicated, high-tech place. But it’s also as fundamental as a happy clam – which come to think of it is not such a simple thing either.
If someone wonders what’s the most important single economic driver on this peninsula, the answer is Cape Cod Healthcare. But barely visible A.R.C., hunkered in the northside mid-Cape dunes, ranks right up there.