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.