Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chesapeake Bay Oysters

When I think of the Chesapeake Bay one of the first things that comes to mind is the blue crab, and not just at Christmastime. As a young man, I remember that you could go into any Maryland beachfront bar and, for about ten dollars, purchase a large bag of crabs and a wooden mallet, as well as a pint of beer, and lounge in the sand feasting on crustaceans until early evening. It was heaven.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that the major commercial fishing operation of the region until the mid-1980s was harvesting the Crassostrea virginica, or the Eastern Oyster, the breed of oyster most eaten in the United States. Oysters thrive in a constant and alternating mixture of fresh and salt water; the Chesapeake Bay is situated just in from the Atlantic, but fed by dozens of rivers across the watershed. When John Smith sailed into the Bay in 1608 he found the oysters thick enough to make sailing troublesome. Between the Civil War and 1980 the majority of oysters swallowed in the United States were from the Bay.

Oysters have a strange and brackish taste that the poet Léon-Paul Fargue compared to ''kissing the sea on the lips''; probably not the intimate act I would first associate with eating oysters. No matter. One of the pleasures associated with having a taste for oysters is that it's never entirely possible to explain that taste to those who don't have it; enjoying oysters seems illogical somehow.

The Chesapeake Bay oyster population declined in the 1980s due to two entirely predictable factors: more people moved into the area and the Bay was overfished. The population is down to 1% of the pre-1980 level. This is a problem and not just for shuckers: oysters are great for filtering nitrogen from the water. A single oyster can filter almost 50 gallons a day. So a body of water with a good oyster population will be cleaner, allowing other species, such as crabs, to thrive. It used to be that scientists believed that oysters chose clean water for their habitat; now, many think that oysters turn their habitat cleaner.

Maryland is getting the message. Numerous farms are raising oysters to place in the Bay and the state will likely move towards private ownership of the beds; formerly, open to the general public and their pails. The state is also mapping the oyster beds and looking for sites for new beds. one group, the Oyster Recovery Project, planted over 450 million hatchery-raised oysters this year alone. This is good, not only for oysters, but for the environment as well as the economy of the region. It's also good for those of us who like Chesapeake Bay seafood.


Holly said...

In related crustacean news, I recently heard from a friend who goes to Maine for the holidays that the sustainable practices employed in the lobstering industry are paying off, there is a tremendous upsurge in lobster population, an downswing in lobster pricing, and a general sense that lobster should be the new Christmas ham.

Although I have doubts about the wisdom of a direct ham<-->lobster swap.

rufus said...

Actually, I've recently got news of Maine lobstering- my father is a lobsterman on a little island off of Portland. The sustainable practices used there are considered something of a model for how to fish- and just good sense as an entire economy would collapse without the lobsters. There are a number of things he is supposed to do, including making notches in the tails of breeder females and throwing them back.

Anyway, I think the price of lobster is dropping with everything else in the economy, and he's not really thrilled about that. But, if the population is growing, that is good news for him.

As for the ham stuff, it's good for me because we are due to spend Christmas with him next year and I love seafood, while not being particularly fond of ham.

gregvw said...

It is the very fact that oysters and their relatives are water filters that has served as one of the three main reasons that I don't eat them. The second is that they look nasty and the texture is displeasing to me.
The third is that they are insufficiently tasty to overrule points one and two.

Batter-fried oven mitts aren't that bad either.

rufus said...

I think it's just a genetic memory for me- one half of my family was sailors in Maine and Nova Scotia, and before that in England. I pretty much enjoy eating everything that once lived in the ocean. Currently, I'm addicted to octopus salad, which is great.