Last week I posted a review of Kate Livie’s book, Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future. The final portion of Livie’s book is dedicated to the rise of aquaculture in the Bay watershed over the past 15- 20 years.
Aquaculture is reliant on the production of disease-resistant, sterile triploid oysters. (To read more about the production of these triploids please see this former post on a Chesapeake Bay hatchery; and this former post on a nearby oyster farm). Raised in floating cages, or in cages suspended on the Bay floor, triploids are being raised in the millions in Virginia and Maryland, revitalizing the local oyster industry. The Chesapeake oyster can once again be found in restaurants and markets across the Eastern seaboard (and sometimes even across the country).
Aquaculture represents the future of the Chesapeake oyster in this region. However, traditional forms of harvest are still taking place in the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Despite the fact that traditional harvesting methods produce a minute fraction of historic records, harvesting of reefs, both natural and manmade, is an ongoing practice in Maryland and Virginia. Some question whether harvesting of reefs should be allowed at all, when the wild oyster population remains so low. As stated previously, the current population is estimated to be at or below 1% of historic levels.
Virginia and Maryland have both attempted to increase these population levels, with limited success. State-owned sanctuaries, where harvesting is limited or forbidden all together, are a way to protect and revive the wild oyster population. A recent report from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources unsurprisingly documents a population boom among oysters in Maryland sanctuaries over the past five years, while the oyster population outside of protected areas fell. Livie’s telling of the decline of the wild Chesapeake oyster, and this recent DNR report leave us with the questions: Should harvesting be allowed in these sanctuaries? Should harvesting continue at all while population numbers remain so low? If Maryland was more open to aquaculture, would this present a solution to displaced watermen, or those seeking alternate means of employment within the industry?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. Harvesting of oyster reefs remains an economic and cultural cornerstone of several waterfront communities in the Chesapeake region. The studies that have been undertaken do not definitively prove that harvesting of oyster reefs is harming current populations. On the other hand, with population levels as low as they are, it would seem that stricter regulations could only help.
As with many environment and water quality issues in the Bay, there are no easy solutions. But it’s certainly interesting to examine all sides to the story.
This spring we’ve read reports from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) on the recent resurgence of submerged aquatic vegetation in the Bay; we’ve seen the latest survey from VIMS and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources showing that blue crab populations are higher this year than in several years past; and we’ve seen the University of Maryland (UMCES) report on the overall improving water quality in the Bay watershed. We’ve noticed some of these improvements firsthand in Antipoison Creek, on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Gary Greenwood shares his observations below:
We just spent three days at our place in White Stone. The weather was terrific, but better than that, we saw things in and around the water that we haven’t seen in the 10 years we have been visiting.
Walking out our dock on Antipoison Creek we noticed a lot of underwater grasses growing on both sides. I understand from our neighbor who has lived on the creek for decades that there used to be a lot of underwater grasses in the creek, but it has been gone for a long time.
The grasses must be providing good habitat for young crabs. We have seen lots of skate in the shallows near the grass, and further out we see crab pots set by five different watermen, based on the colors of the buoys. We have always had crabs of course, but seldom a population to support this many pots.
We visited Mike next door at his oyster farm (www.windmilloysters.com). He was too busy getting a shipment of 5,000 oysters out the door, but he did give us some baby oysters so we can start the next generation in the cage under our dock. Mike said he is shipping more than 15,000 oysters a week, which is great for him and his small operation.
In addition to being a good business, Mike’s oyster farm, with a couple of million oysters in the creek and out in Little Bay, is probably one of the reasons the underwater grasses are returning. (See the earlier post about recent water quality in the creek and Little Bay.)
In the evenings I have been reading Kate Livie’s very enjoyable book, Chesapeake Oysters, about the oysters in the Bay and the people who have made a living from them. She does a great job recounting the history of the oyster from the 1600’s to the present. I hope to finish it this weekend.
One of our goals each time we visit is to eat local seafood whenever we can. This weekend we enjoyed roast oysters at Merroir across the river in Topping, and local rockfish from our fishmonger, Blue Water Seafood in Kilmarnock.
The efforts to clean up the Bay certainly need to continue. We plan to continue monitoring the water quality and donating our information and other resources where we think we can make a difference. This weekend has given us a little optimism that the things everyone does to help the Bay can make a difference.
Oyster season began last Thursday, October 1, in Maryland. While a lot of oyster production in the Chesapeake Bay now takes place in cages with specially manufactured disease-resistant oysters, there are still watermen who dredge and dive from natural oyster reefs in the Bay. Watermen typically use hand and patent tonging to bring up oysters.
(For a visual on this process, check out this youtube video of Chesapeake watermen oyster tonging on the water. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRWGHgbCbHQ).
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently estimated that oyster harvests from tonging and diving will not be as high this year as in the past couple of years. According to DelmarvaNow, Maryland watermen hauled in 393,000 bushels of oysters last year, bringing in $17.3 million. This year’s harvest will likely be lower. The reason for the estimate of lower harvest levels this upcoming season is a decline in reproduction of oysters from 2013-2014. There are 1-2 years lag time between reproduction levels and harvest level responses, given the time it takes for oysters to mature. Reproduction levels were high in 2010-2012, contributing to high harvest levels the past two years.
However, despite recent storms keeping watermen off the water for a few days, good harvests are being reported so far, with bushel limits being reached every day, according to the Star Democrat, a newspaper produced in Easton, Maryland.
Tonging and diving for oysters can only take place at certain reefs in Maryland. The various restoration sites and oyster sanctuaries, overseen by organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (see map of CBF oyster reef sites here), are off limits to watermen. Even oyster reserve areas, which the DNR wanted to open to harvest, are off limits, after the Chesapeake Legal Alliance challenged the DNR’s proposal to open 10 reserve sites earlier this year.
Power- and sail-dredging for oysters will begin in November, and the oyster season will continue until March 31 of next year.
If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that we’ve been growing our own oysters in a floating cage off of our dock on Virginia’s Northern Neck. We started off with 300 quarter-size oysters, placed in a mesh bag, within the cage, last July.
The oysters grew to be large enough to float freely in the cage, and eventually large enough to eat. We cooked the first batch just before Labor Day Weekend this year, opting to bake the first batch (the shells open on their own in the heat). We’ve since learned how to shuck, though!
We lost a few oysters to predation- mostly crabs- and with the number that have been consumed, we likely have about 200 left in the cage. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more ‘oyster babies’ soon and starting the process over again.
By Gary Greenwood
My wife and I are trying to not only eat a lot of fish, but locally caught fish and other seafood. So, in early July we enjoyed a perfect Sunday evening at Merroir, an oyster café in Topping, on the south side of the Rappahannock. The roast oysters were very local, and delicious. We also enjoyed Skate for our main course. Skate (probably Cownose Ray), is fairly common in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer. This one was prepared piccata-style, and it was delicious.
Cownose Rays are not considered invasive in the bay. Unfortunately, they enjoy young crabs and oysters, just as we do. Not many restaurants serve them, perhaps because they are a little hard to catch. We recommend you try it if you do see it on the menu.
Toward the end of July, we headed to northern California for a wedding. We chose to extend our trip in order to enjoy more of the wine and local seafood. We found wonderful local seafood wherever we went. We had a great lunch at Bouchon in Napa, and then headed over to Jenner for a couple of great meals at River’s End, overlooking the point where the Russian River meets the Pacific. Further up the coast we found Mendocino’s Café Beaujolais charming, with delicious food. Perhaps the nicest surprise was recommended by Blake, the river guide from Catch-a-Canoe who took us up the Big River to look at seals and third growth redwoods along the protected shoreline. Blake suggested we try Wild Fish at Little River. There we enjoyed excellent Halibut and Albacore tuna in a dining room with space for only 20 diners.
The biggest surprise was on our last night in San Francisco, when we went to Hog Island Oyster Company on the Embarcadero. In addition to Pacific oysters from five locations along the coast, they had Rappahannock oysters from Topping on the menu. I guess they are popular in San Francisco, since they were sold out that night. It was exciting to see Chesapeake oysters on the menu of a popular oyster-house in San Francisco.
I stumbled upon an article from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the Native American’s precolonial consumption of oysters that I wanted to share. Researchers from SERC and Natural History have been looking at ancient waste from a Native American tribe- the Piscataway Indians- along the Rhode River (in Edgewater, Maryland on the SERC grounds). These waste piles are filled with broken pottery, artifacts, and oyster shell remains, telling us a little about what kinds of tools were used, and food consumed by local tribe members. Looking at the past 3,200 years, this group of researchers found a 950 year gap, between 800 B.C. to 150 C.E., where no oyster shells dating from that time can be found.
Researchers have several theories about this gap- speculating on a sampling error or a decline in shellfish aquaculture during this time. Sea level rise and the sinking of the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed may also have contributed to the gap. Waste piles containing missing oyster shells may have been in areas that have eroded or been inundated with water due to sea level rise that has already occurred. Interesting to think how sea level rise in this area impacts historical and anthropological studies, as well as a variety of environmental issues.
The official paper, “Shell Middens, Cultural Chronologies, and Coastal Settlement on the Rhode River Sub-Estuary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA,” which appeared in Geoarchaeology in August, discusses the methods used to date the remains from the waste piles and goes into more technical detail on plausible explanations for the 950 year gap. I don’t have the access to be able to share the full report here, but there is a nice summary of the findings on the SERC blog.
In a previous post I mentioned that I had started an oyster garden in early July. The oysters were purchased from a party that grows oysters from seed (from the hatchery) until the animals reach roughly the size of a quarter. I got a bag of 300 of these quarter-size oysters, and put them in a sealed mesh bag that I placed inside of an oyster float. In the two months since I started the garden, the oysters have grown about an inch. Some oysters are larger than others. Because a few were still not big enough to be placed directly into the float, all of the oysters were kept in the mesh bag, where they will continue to grow for a few more weeks.
When the float was brought up for cleaning most recently, there were three blue crabs that had to be removed. Blue crabs prey on the oysters and in fact, 14 from my batch had been pried open and left for dead, presumably by crabs (oysters pictured below).
The oysters will go dormant and stop growing in the winter months, as the water temperatures fall. The oysters need to grow at least another inch- until they reach 3 inches- to be edible, likely around late next summer or early fall. For now, they are doing their part to filer water in the creek and improve water quality.
Early last month I started growing oysters off of the dock at the house on Antipoison Creek. The oysters came out as seed from Oyster Seed Holdings, LLC, a hatchery on Gwynn’s Island, Virginia, and were raised by a third party, Oyster Mama’s Bay-Bies, until they reached the size of a quarter. I have 300 oysters growing in a bag inside of an oyster float off of the dock. The oysters will stay in the bag until they grow big enough to float in the cage by themselves.
Oyster gardening is pretty low maintenance. The cage and bag need to come out of the water every week or two to be cleaned. The cage needs to be checked just as often to make sure no predators, like blue crabs, are inside, eating the oysters.
The oysters will go dormant over the late fall and winter as the water temperatures drop. This batch will be ready for eating hopefully by early next fall, when they grow to be at least 3 inches long. (I have triploid oysters, which usually reach maturity in 18 to 24 months.) Until then, the oysters are doing their part to clean the Chesapeake Bay- each one filters up to 50 gallons of water a day!
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released a study on water quality in the Potomac River, and the impact oyster aquaculture could have on the watershed. Published in Aquatic Geochemistry, the study stated that the nitrogen in the Potomac River estuary could be removed if 40% of the river bed was covered in oyster reefs, or used to grow oysters. (An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons per day). The Potomac River was once a place where oysters thrived, however, the same issues seen in the Chesapeake Bay- disease, overharvesting and eutrophication- significantly reduced the amount of oysters from in the tributary.
There are already ongoing projects, working on restoring oysters to the Potomac River. However, these efforts are running into roadblocks. The Baltimore Sun had a piece today on a proposed marina in Charles County, Maryland, which, when developed, will likely pollute a preexisting oyster bar. Although the oyster bar has been producing significantly low numbers of oysters in the past few decades, the bar is part of recent restoration efforts in Maryland.