Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 6, 2015 and The Weekly Packet, August 6, 2015
Building a life on the Bagaduce River
Tonyia Peasley and Little Island Oyster Co.
by Anne Berleant
Heading out from the Brooksville Town Landing, the Bagaduce River opens wide. One hand on the tiller, the other pointing ahead to Scott’s Island, Tonyia Peasley guides her 14-foot Carolina skiff past neat lines of oyster bags floating on the river. Peasley is one half of the working hands and minds behind Little Island Oyster Co. and, slipping against the dock, the other half, Frank Peasley, ties off the boat. First off is the dog, Tillie, who accompanies Tonyia out to the aquaculture site and the island that appears, from the water, small enough to hold in two hands.
“This is our little piece of paradise,” Tonyia says, walking up a narrow wooden ramp to Scott’s Island. The cabin, named The Crow’s Nest by Richard Limeburner who built it in the 1960s, is now solar-powered home base, keeping the river free of the noise of a generator.
The Peasleys bought the island in 2011 but had already been growing oysters on a nearby lease site for two years, working off their boat.
“It was exhausting, very difficult,” Tonyia says of the operation’s start-up. “We don’t have investors, grants. We don’t have anyone with a safety net under us.”
They researched the idea for three years, Tonyia says, while Frank continued groundfishing and lobstering, and the two ran a caretaking and property management business. Tonyia, the daughter of a lobsterman, would fill in on Frank’s boat as stern-man when needed. “It’s a tough cycle,” she says. “Anyone in it knows what I’m talking about. Work, work, work. Save, save, save.”
They decided to begin the process of applying for a lease site from the Department of Marine Resources seven years ago. “We figured it out, we can do it, and we want to.”
“Acquaculture—it carries a lot with it,” Tonyia continues, with a nod toward the sometimes acrimonious response from neighboring landowners and communities.
For the Peasleys, this wasn’t the case. Strong members of their community, with a history of fishing and lobstering on both sides, “people were very supportive,” she says. “The biggest concern was that we didn’t want to be in the way of anyone commercially fishing….Frank carries that with him.”
The oysters take 2-3 years to reach market size. The oysters are grown in floating bags just under the surface of the river. They are also grown on the rivers bottom, scattered loose. These oysters are harvested by scuba diving.
“Me being on the water is the smallest part of what I do,” she says. Tonyia markets the oysters, which are sold wholesale to “a handful of buyers that have grown with us,” bypassing a middleman, and handles licensing, tracking and data reporting to the state’s Department of Marine Resources.
“The hardest part was creating a product and creating a market for the product,” she says. A few local restaurants, such as Aragosta and Fisherman’s Friend in Stonington, carry their oysters, but 99 percent are sold out of state.
What has grown the most over the past seven years, Tonyia says, is “the education piece. It really surprised me.”
The Peasleys work with local schools, explaining oyster farming, water filtration and other mechanics of aquaculture, and they even brought students from Brooksville Elementary School to the island on a field trip. They speak with kayakers passing by about what and how they farm oysters.
“Aquaculture is so abstract. People don’t know what it looks like,” she says.
Little Island Oyster Company employs three full-time seasonal workers. One helps on the water, and two on the float, culling, sizing, counting orders, washing and bagging. That part is Tonyia’s domain, she says. “Everything that leaves the farm, I know what it looks like.”
The best part of working on and from the river is “where we do it,” she says. “One time, Frank and I were in for lunch, getting ready to go out, and a seal came onto the island. She lay there, she fell asleep. But we had to go catch the school bus. So, we walked quietly out.”