Written & Photographed by Felicia Friesema
Stromberg. “And you don’t want to pick off the wild stock to extinction
and upset the ecosystem. What we do provides the food we want in the
quantities we need without damaging the environment. Everything we do,
we try to do according to what naturally happens out in the water. Nothing
we’re doing is throwing off the balance of the natural environment.”
The list of names can be daunting: Sol Azul, Barron Point, Fanny Bay, Kumamoto, Luna. All oysters with unique flavor profiles, colors, textures, sizes and shapes. Chefs and market-goers alike can wax poetic about their differences in brine, melon-like creaminess, or meaty texture. Would it surprise you to know they’re all the exact same species? Crassostrea gigas. The Pacific oyster.
As unmoving bivalves – filter feeders that create themselves entirely from their surrounding environment – oysters develop their character based almost exclusively on their location, changing with age, temperature, depth and of course, water quality and available nutrients. It’s why the fast-growing behemoths from the Gulf of California are rich and briny (there’s lots of available food and warmer temperatures) while the small and pale Luna from a small protected bay in Carlsbad is almost Kumamoto- like, a perfect mouthful of ocean carefully cultivated between the two largest cities in Southern California.
Neighboring the wide open spaces of Camp Pendleton and the suburban-packed mesas of San Diego, Carlsbad Aquafarm is a modern urban farming establishment with Thoreauvian ambitions. It shares land with a large natural gas power plant – a feature that strictly prohibits frequent visitation by interested food tourists – and exists with it in an environmentally confusing symbiosis, fundamentally altering the front ocean intake pool of the Agua Hedondia Lagoon and transforming it into a sheltered and viable ocean habitat.
The lagoons of San Diego County that dot the coastline from Oceanside to La Jolla are generally highly dynamic, shallow, and silty tidal marshes that host shortlived marsh species that can survive in the constantly changing muddy salt pools. But Agua Hedondia runs deep due to biannual dredging to remove the lagoon’s slowly building silt. The power plant needs a constant and reliable source of cold water for cooling, so keeping the waterway free of debris is a priority. Octopus, scallops, crabs, starfish, whelks and yes, oysters all thrive in the altered ecosystem, which now serves as an ocean nursery and feeding ground for abundant wildlife, including the once endangered California Brown Pelican.
It’s not a stretch to say that Carlsbad Aquafarm couldn’t exist without this giant symbol of modern industrial infrastructure churning away next door. The power plant’s cooling systems create a man-made current that keeps Agua Hedondia refreshed with a constant flow of ocean water. The aquafarm’s floating pontoons are positioned just east of the current, maximizing nutrient capture by taking the brunt of the flow while helping funnel it into the plant’s intake system.
It’s an abnormally hot April morning in Carlsbad as I pull up to the unmarked gate that marks the shared and well-guarded entrance to both the aquafarm and the power plant. I had to admit that the looming exhaust stack next door, not to mention the security rules I had to follow in order to enter, did nothing to assuage my doubts about this unusual partnership. But after a slow, escorted walk past the plant and into the aquafarm’s operating facility, other things began to take prominence. Wild oysters, some easily six to eight inches across, and large clusters of mussels cling to every available underwater surface.
About five feet down I start to make out the unmistakable orange glow of a particularly large, and presumably well-fed, starfish. In the oyster baskets sitting out on the docks there are dozens of baby clams and scallops, all naturally spawned in Agua Hedondia’s gently flowing currents. A large flock of pelicans rests on the buoys above the cultivated oyster and mussel baskets, while an energetic pair of American Coots bobs by, crossing the current coming in and occasionally diving into small schools of anchovies. The air smells like neither shellfish farm nor power plant. It’s just ocean and sagebrush. And I realize why Kansas-born Kelly Stromberg , who started at the aquafarm in 2010, doesn’t stop smiling the entire tour.
“It’s great work,” says the well-tanned Stromberg . “The weather is pretty perfect year-round. A little cloudy in winter. But the dress code is great and the view is gorgeous.” Normally, Stromberg is in the office coordinating sales with distributors. But today, along with conducting my tour, she’s been conscripted into packing the long baby mussel bags that will get put back into the water that afternoon. The packing machine is broken thanks to an errant rock. So she takes turns with a few other farm hands slowly and gently filling the long cotton and nylon bags that the mussels will call home for the next few months. The farm only has 14 employees and when something breaks, it’s all hands on deck. There are no office monkeys on the farm.
“It’s actually the job I wanted,” said Stromberg when asked if she minds the manual labor. “I get the best of both worlds. My background is in biology and I like to be outdoors. I knew this would be an office job when I applied, but I would guess I get to spend about a quarter of my week outside working on whatever needs to be done. It’s never dull.”
The land and original buildings on the site were initially used for abalone research and aquaculture by San Diego State University in the 1960’s. In 1985, those buildings were bought by Sea Farms West, a small shellfish operation that focused primarily on mussel cultivation. Now those original buildings have become spawning rooms for all of the shellfish the aquafarm produces. They’re best known for their three oyster varieties – the Luna, the Carlsbad Blonde and the Del Sol – and black Mediterranean mussels. But they’re also growing a few up and coming products such as the Carlsbad Speckled Scallop, Green Abalone, which needs about five to six years to reach “market size”, and which, along with the Manila clam, is an up-and-coming product for the farm. Another new product is Red Ogo seaweed, a salty, sweet, and crunchy feathery seaweed that is a must have ingredient for an authentic Hawaiian-style poke.
It should be noted that Carlsbad Aquafarm is currently the only shellfish farm in Southern California, and has been since it was first opened in 1990 by owner John Davis (Acacia Pacific Investments became co-owner in 2004). If you want locally grown and harvested seafood with a sustainable business model, this is where you come. They reuse everything on the farm, including spent oyster and mussel shells, and aim for as little impact as possible on the local environment.