Marla Cimini | Special to USA TODAY 10Best
Seafood lovers and conservation enthusiasts visiting San Diego’s North County can now participate in a unique guided tour of a state-of-the-art aquafarm, where you can learn about coastal sustainability – and afterwards, get an oyster-shucking lesson and tasting while overlooking a tranquil lagoon.
The Carlsbad Aquafarm is an innovative facility situated on the picturesque Agua Hedionda Lagoon in the coastal town of Carlsbad. Helping to preserve the Southern California wetlands and clean the ocean, this aquafarm harvests over two million pounds of shellfish annually and is dedicated to sharing its message of sustainability with visitors who tour this eco-friendly and fascinating operation.
As the only aquafarm in Southern California, this facility was established over 30 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2021 that the farm opened its doors to small group tours. Guests (with ticketed reservations) can now get a rare, firsthand look at this intriguing destination. While on site, visitors gain some knowledge about how this shellfish farm is increasing biodiversity in the area by cleaning the water and protecting the coast from the negative impact of the ocean’s rising levels.
This farm grows and harvests shellfish from the lagoon, which are sold to directly to consumers and local businesses through a distributor. The species farmed here are Pacific oysters (called Carlsbad blondes) and Mediterranean mussels, (referred to as Carlsbad mussels). About 750 million gallons of seawater flows through the lagoon from the Pacific Ocean daily, bringing nutrients to feed the shellfish and keep the lagoons clean.
Considered “filter feeders,” shellfish subsist by eating algae and other small, organic particles from the lagoon. The Carlsbad Aquafarm’s process results in fresh oysters and mussels for consumers, as well as an additional positive impact: healthy, clear water, enabling the lagoon’s eelgrass beds to grow, and ensuring that the wetlands’ abundant wildlife thrives.
This was the first oyster farm to feature an inventive “depuration and purification” process, which involves immersing the oysters in triple-filtered seawater once they reach full size. This ensures that the oysters are a completely safe, top-quality delicious shellfish product.
The tour informs visitors of the farm’s processes every step of the way and demonstrates how one-inch-sized oysters are placed in multiple trays (each holding about 60 oysters) and stacked underwater for approximately six months as they grow. Suspended above the seafloor in anchored buoys, the shellfish are protected from predators and eventually harvested after reaching “market size,” between two and five inches.
At that point, the bivalves are transferred to tanks for a triple filtration process that provides a thorough cleaning. Conversely, mussels are farmed slightly differently, and instead cling to fibrous “ropes” which are suspended underwater until harvested.
Most importantly, the aquafarm also supports the local biodiverse waterfront by working with the city of Carlsbad, and partnering with research universities, including the Wrigley Marine Lab at the University of Southern California. They also conduct aquaponic vegetable farming experiments on-site throughout the year.
Rachael Taylor, the tour director of the Carlsbad Aquafarm, says that the Carlsbad Aquafarm is committed to producing high-quality seafood, and sells about 11,000 pounds a week via individual farm pick-ups, as well as through local distribution. She pointed out that the aquafarm is not considered a large operation and they are dedicated to conserving the ocean’s resources by their sustainable farming practices.
She says, “We are a very small company, and we are choosing to stay that way, as this keeps us sustainable as well. Simply put, farming oysters and mussels truly enhances the environment and greatly improves the health of our coastal waters.”
Tayor hopes a visit to the aquafarm will inspire travelers to the area to learn about ocean conservation and sustainability in SoCal. “I love telling the Carlsbad Aquafarm story to my tour guests – locals or tourists. You can see how their understanding of the growing process changes their view on oysters and mussels. We hope they take this understanding with them through all of their consumer choices, to choose sustainably grown food that supports the local ecosystem and the local economy.”
In addition, the Carlsbad Aquafarm also donates used oyster shells to local charitable organizations, artists and sustainable businesses throughout the year. So far in 2022, they have donated over 300 cubic yards of shells, including some for a project with the San Diego Zoo in conjunction with the Navy Seals. It’s designed to grow the population of two endangered species of shorebird: the California least tern and the western snowy plover.
She mentioned that a few years ago, the farm donated to The Bay of San Diego for conservation efforts; and in early June 2022, they gave shells to a local farm for calcium supplements for chicken feed.
According to Taylor, future plans are in the works within the next few years for the aquafarm’s future expansion, including a possible market, gift shop and oyster tastings without requiring a tour ticket.
Tour the farm and learn to shuck oysters
The Carlsbad Aquafarm hosts small group tours daily (of about 12 people), with an experienced guide providing an inside look into the farm’s entire operation and why it’s such a unique, environmentally friendly operation.
This hour-long outdoor guided tour is an easy stroll across the property, with an in-depth description of the facilities; an opportunity to hold oysters and mussels in the touch tank, ranging in size from minuscule to jumbo; glimpses of the purification systems’ technology and an added bonus of being surrounded by nature and waterfront vistas.
Our tour guide, Sophia Martinez, was extremely knowledgeable and provided an abundance of information about the local ecosystems. She showed us the inner workings of the farm and answered all of our questions. At the end of the tour, she brought our small group to a shady outdoor patio and gave us a live, very detailed oyster-shucking tutorial and eagerly helped some of us try to carefully open the shellfish ourselves.
Gloves and knives are provided, and supplies are placed atop barrel-style tables, so tour participants have their own space. Our group especially enjoyed tasting six fresh, delectable oysters each, while overlooking the lagoon.
Carlsbad Aquafarm ticket info
The Carlsbad Aquafarm’s tour is very popular, so reservations are required online for the one-hour guided visit ($35 per person). Wear a hat, bring sunblock and a bottle of water, as you are (mostly) outside in the sun for this experience.
If you wish to taste the mussels and oysters without the tour, no problem! You can still enjoy the shellfish via online pre-orders. Freshness is guaranteed, because once the order is confirmed, the oysters will be ready for pick-up within two hours, and they will be out of the water for a brief ten minutes. Visit the website for pricing and details.
Where to stay in Carlsbad, CA
Cape Rey Carlsbad Beach, a Hilton Resort and Spa
This stunning beachfront resort is in a prime location in Carlsbad and home to a large swimming pool area and a casual restaurant with waterfront views and an extensive menu of specialties. Some rooms have balconies and face the ocean.
The Cassara Carlsbad, Tapestry Collection by Hilton
Overlooking Carlsbad’s famous flower fields, this hotel is situated a few minutes’ drive from the center of town (also known as “The Village”). It features a lovely pool area, and it’s very close to Legoland, a variety of restaurants and shopping.