A Young Oyster Farmer Carrying on the Family Business

Published by
Bridget Shirvell

A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Deep Dish, our monthly newsletter for members. Become a member today to receive the next issue.

When she’s not doing schoolwork or playing field hockey, 15-year-old Gaby Zlotkowski can be found working with oysters: flipping cages, harvesting, shucking, and more. It’s not uncommon for teens to help with the family business, but the island town of Isleboro, Maine, about 100 miles northeast of Portland, is primarily lobster country. It’s all the more notable that Zlotkowski was a driving force not only behind her mom starting Isleboro Oyster Company, but is also now pursuing an oyster and kelp farm of her own.

“Growing up on an island where there’s only really lobstering, I thought [the oyster farm] would be a really good opportunity for our family—and I’d get oysters whenever I wanted,” Zlotkowski said.

The timing is right as Maine’s coastal waters have grown warmer, and many lobsters are moving further north, endangering the industry. Last month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium added lobsters to its “do not eat” list, prompting political backlash from a Maine congressman.

After years in the lobster industry, Zlotkowski’s mother, Kim Grindle, says she had always wanted to try aquaculture. “When I started talking about [oyster farming], Gaby kind of pushed me into it and said, ‘You have to do this.’ She was very eager and she’s the reason we’re integrating species diversification.”

After learning about the kelp farms in Portland’s Casco Bay, Zlotkowski started thinking about how kelp could provide diversification for her mom’s oyster farm. When she began the 2021–22 school year and had the opportunity to create an independent learning project, she decided to develop a program on growing kelp.

“I’ve eaten a lot of kelp in restaurants and really like it,” said Zlotkowski, adding that she likes that kelp doesn’t require pesticides, freshwater, or fertilizer to grow, and that it can create healthier ecosystems and cleaner air and water.

Most Mainers set their kelp in October or November. Zlotkowski didn’t get her state license until January, but she still managed to lay 1,200 feet of line and harvested about 800 pounds of kelp. She also gave tours of the kelp farm to local schools and was able to employ two friends and her brother on harvest day.

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“I’m going to keep growing kelp as long as I can, and as my mom expands her business into a kelp farm, I plan on playing a key role,” said Zlotkowski.

While she’s not sure what she’ll do after school—she’s only 15, after all—Zlotkowski sees the work on the kelp farm as a key ingredient.

“As the working waterfront becomes less accessible in parts of Maine, my family’s history plays an important role,” she said. “I’m proud of my heritage and it’s pretty unique. There are a few things that I’m interested in doing after school and I think aquaculture and fisheries will play a major role.”

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Bridget Shirvell

Bridget Shirvell is the Audience Engagement Editor of Civil Eats. A New England-based journalist, she has reported on a wide range of food, travel, and environmental subjects over the years for venues including VICE, Condé Nast Traveler, and Edible Communities. She has served as a digital strategist for Long Island Pulse Magazine, an audience engagement specialist for PBS NewsHour, and a town reporter in Connecticut.

Published by
Bridget Shirvell

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