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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Basic Oyster Facts

Here are some oyster basics:

The native eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, usually lives in water depths of between 8 and 25 feet and naturally forms three-dimensional intertidal reefs.

An oyster orients itself with the flared edge of its shell tilted upward. The left valve is cupped, while the right valve is flat. The shell opens periodically to permit the oyster to feed on plankton.

Oysters usually mature by age one. They are protandric, which means that in the first year they spawn as males, but as they grow larger and develop more energy reserves in the next two to three years, they spawn as females.

An increase in water temperatures triggers the male oyster to release sperm and the female to release eggs into the water. This triggers a chain reaction of spawning which clouds the water with millions of eggs and sperm. A single female oyster produces 10 to 100 million eggs annually.

The eggs are fertilized in the water and soon develop into larvae, or veligers, which are drawn to the chemicals released by older oysters on the bottom. Oysters need to settle in a suitable spot, such as another oyster’s shell. Juvenile attached oysters are called “spat.”


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oyster Management and Restoration

Oyster reefs are more than just habitat, they are complex and diverse communities.

Bay Program partners developed the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Management Plan to help restore and maintain the valuable ecological services provided by native oysters while continuing to support an oyster fishery. The strategy described in the Oyster Management Plan consists of three components: Defining oyster sanctuaries, managing harvest and overcoming the effects of disease.

Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration

However, it is important to understand that the Bay's poor water quality is not due solely to the loss of the oyster population and, therefore, cannot be corrected by restoring oysters alone. Other pressures on the Bay's ecosystem—including land use practices and nutrient and sediment pollution—must be addressed for future oyster and water quality restoration efforts to be successful.

Oyster Sanctuaries

The first component of the oyster management strategy defines sanctuaries—areas where harvesting is prohibited—to increase the ecological function of oyster beds.

Scientists also improve habitat in these areas by cleaning sediment off the reefs and adding cultch (clean, empty shells or other hard material) for new spat to settle on.

By restoring oyster reefs and protecting them from harvest, there is potential to increase populations of spawning adult oysters and, in turn, larval production.
In the short term, factors like disease and water quality will significantly limit the success of oyster sanctuaries and the increase in oyster populations; however, sanctuaries will become important contributors to oyster restoration if disease resistance is allowed to evolve over time in wild populations and is supported by management practices.

Decisions about where to locate sanctuaries are guided by the Virginia Oyster Restoration Plan, developed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC); and by Maryland's Priority Restoration Areas, developed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) and the Maryland Oyster Roundtable Steering Committee.

Managing Oyster Harvest

The second component of the oyster management strategy implements harvest strategies to build a sustainable oyster industry in both Maryland and Virginia.

The main strategy for regulating harvest and enhancing harvest potential is to establish sanctuaries and special management areas throughout the Bay.
The ideal situation is to estimate the amount of oysters that can be taken safely from the population while maintaining a sustainable Bay-wide population of oysters.
A major challenge is to determine what level of exploitation is appropriate and will not compromise restoration efforts.

Management strategies for the Maryland oyster fishery are considered by a number of advisory groups working with MD DNR. In Virginia, oyster harvest is managed on a bar-specific basis.

Oyster Disease

The third component of the oyster management strategy recognizes the constraints of disease and implements management strategies that reduce the impact of disease.

A major challenge to oyster restoration in the Bay is to overcome the effects of the diseases MSX and Dermo. It is estimated that, by age 3, 80 percent or more of a year class in high disease areas (i.e., the Virginia portion of the Bay) will die due to disease.

Maryland and Virginia confront different problems concerning disease. Virginia oysters are faced with constant disease pressure because MSX and Dermo thrive in warmer, saltier waters. Maryland's situation is more variable depending on weather conditions.

Research efforts have been underway for a number of years to breed strains of native oysters with greater disease resistance. Current research will give scientists a better understanding of how these disease-tolerant strains could contribute to large-scale oyster restoration efforts.

Recently, it has been found that oysters in areas subject to high exposure to MSX are evolving to resist the disease. Scientists and managers are adjusting harvest and sanctuary management strategies to optimize the long-term benefits of the development of MSX resistance.

Introduction of a Non-native Oyster

In response to the decline in the native oyster population, Maryland and Virginia have proposed intentional introduction of a non-native oyster species, Crassostrea ariakensis (also known as Suminoe or Asian oyster). This species is believed to have greater resistance to MSX and Dermo.

Considerable controversy exists over this proposal, and many questions remain about the possible implications of introduction. In 2003, the U.S. Congress mandated that an environmental impact statement (EIS) be prepared to examine both the risks and benefits of introducing this species to the Bay, compared with the risks and benefits of other management alternatives. A draft EIS is expected to be released in 2008.

In 2004 the National Research Council of the National Academies published its year-long study, Nonnative Oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. This independent study is the most complete analysis to date on the possible introduction of non-native oysters into the Bay.

According to the study, introduction of a non-native oyster should be delayed until more is known about the environmental risks. However, carefully regulated cultivation of sterile Asian oysters in contained areas could help both researchers and the Bay's oyster industry.

The study also noted that it could take decades before there are enough oysters to improve water quality. While Asian oysters would filter excess algae from the water, they would not be a “quick fix” to restore water quality.


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Monday, April 13, 2009

Plans for Non-Native Oysters in Bay DROPPED

Foreign species deemed ecologically dangerous

By Timothy B. Wheeler

Proposals to use a foreign species to restore the Chesapeake Bay's depleted oyster population were essentially scrapped Monday as state and federal governments agreed to focus on bringing back the native oyster.

Maryland, Virginia and federal agencies announced that they remain "fully committed" to using only native oysters, even in trying to help rebuild the bay's seafood industry. Using non-native oysters poses "unacceptable ecological risks," officials said.

The decision ends years of debate about whether to introduce an Asian oyster into the bay and concludes nearly five years of formal study, costing $17 million in state and federal funds.

The Ehrlich administration had pushed for seeding the Chesapeake with the fast-growing Asian oysters because they resist the diseases that have nearly wiped out the bay's native shellfish. Amid scientific fears that the alien species could create ecological havoc, the O'Malley administration abandoned that stance.

In Virginia, though, the seafood industry sought to farm Asian oysters bred to be sterile. The state backed the industry through seven years of "field trials" in which businesses grew batches of the sterile shellfish in cages.

But the state relented in the face of widespread scientific concerns that, despite safeguards, some Asian oysters eventually would reproduce in the bay and their offspring would spread.

Yesterday's joint statement left open the possibility that small, carefully controlled studies might still be approved. But any research in open bay waters would require approval from all parties - unlikely, given firm opposition to such experiments by Maryland and federal environmental agencies.

The governments now plan to craft a strategy for replenishing oyster reefs and seeding them with native bivalves bred in hatcheries. Watermen, meanwhile, will be encouraged to try oyster farming.

But scientists caution that unless native oysters develop a resistance to the diseases killing them, replenishing the bay's wild population could be time-consuming and costly. Large-scale restoration could require spending as much as $50 million a year over the next decade - 10 times what has been spent so far, officials estimate.

The federal government has committed $6.6 million in the coming year, Maryland $5 million and Virginia up to $1 million. The two states are seeking $24 more million in federal economic stimulus funds to apply to oyster restoration efforts.

"We cannot guarantee success, but we'll give it a helluva go," said Col. Dionysios Anninos of the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has directed two reef restorations in Virginia, where native oysters appear to be thriving.

The decision was hailed by environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had threatened to sue if the governments authorized using non-native oysters.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Asian oysters off the Bay menu?


A surprising development in Virginia may mean the end - at least for now - of the debate over whether Asian oysters have any place in the Chesapeake Bay.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Seafood Council abruptly withdrew its request to raise 1.1 million Asian oysters in 11 locations around the bay. The oysters would have been genetically modified and bred to be sterile, though critics have said there is still at least a slight chance that some would be able to reproduce.

In a statement read at a hearing before the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Frances W. Porter, the seafood council's executive director, said the group remained "firm in its confidence in the Asian oysters, but we have exhausted our negotiating capabilities with federal and state authorities."

According to this story by Scott Harper in the Virginian-Pilot, Porter said the council dropped its push for the Asian oyster field trials after "conversations with unnamed state officials over the weekend."

Porter also said the group believed that the Asian oyster would never realize its potential as an aquaculture product, and that Virginia's oyster industry would never be restored to its historic prominence.

The withdrawal comes on the eve of a conference call scheduled Wednesday between Maryland and Virginia natural resources officials and the Army Corps commander to try to reach agreement on whether even sterilized Asian oysters should have a role in restoring the bay's oysters.

Watermen and seafood businesses in both states contend that years of costly efforts to restore the bay's native oysters after decades of devastation by habitat loss and disease have not succeeded. They have pressed for permission to try Asian oysters, since they have proven to resist the diseases killing off native bivalves.

A four-year scientific study of how to restore the bay's oysters, however, said there were uncertainties about whether the non-native bivalve could be grown in a controlled way that would prevent it from spreading.


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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Memorabilia of Bay's Heyday Selling Well


Joe Parlett, owner of Keeper's, holds two of his favorite oyster cans, both with custom labels. The can on the left comes from the Leonard Copsey Oyster Co. Copsey's wife, Josephine, drew the waterman on the label. The can on the right comes from Shorter's Place in Benedict.

Staff photo by JOANNE MALENE

Banagan holds oyster cans from Capt. Sam's Seafood in Bushwood and the Potomac View, which also operated in St. Mary's County.

The first sign of sunshine and warm weather motivates many people to clean their garage or storage area, throwing away old trash like rags, jars or paint cans.

But, before you heave that old paint can, take a good look to see if it was meant to hold paint – or oysters.

And, if you find an old oyster tin, there are a couple of fellows who would like to talk with you.

Joe Parlett, owner of Keeper's in New Market, has been collecting, buying and selling oyster cans for a long time.

Parlett grew up in St. Mary's County with parents who had the antique collecting bug. He started going to auctions with them, buying fishing lures for $8 to $10 each. When prices of lures started going up, he switched to oyster cans.

"I sell crabbing supplies and sometimes I would see oyster cans being used as paint buckets," Parlett said. "So, I told my wife I was going to start collecting oyster cans. I started talking to people and trying to learn as much as I could about cans."

Originally, oysters were packed in stoneware crocks and in glass jars. During the Civil War, oysters were packed in plain square tins. After the war, oysters were packed in plain round metal cans. Paper labels and then embossed labels were added as a marketing device. Cans from before World War II have bail handles on them.

According to Parlett, by the late 1960s, local oyster packing companies had given up packing oysters in metal cans. Most companies began using plastic tubs because they were less expensive and easier to store.

"There were two different types of tin cans used, stock cans and custom cans," he said. "A stock can had a generic label, maybe one that was used by a number of different companies. To get a custom can, a company had to pay thousands of dollars for the graphics and then had to buy 2,000 or more of the cans. A lot of small packers couldn't afford to pay that."

The graphics or picture on the can, the condition and the name on the can all entice a buyer.

"Everyone had the same product — it's all oysters," said Parlett.

"But, look at the different cans — some have mermaids, some have boats, some have Native Americans on the labels. The graphics alone can make you want to buy their product. When I started collecting, I just wanted a can with a boat on it."

Jimmy Banagan of Abell is another oyster can collector.

"I had a janitorial company and we were cleaning out a garage," Banagan said. "I noticed the guy had cans with `Capt. Sam's Oysters' on it and it caught my eye. Now, I collect oyster cans, oyster knives, crab cans — anything to do with seafood."

Like Parlett, Banagan collects cans because of the graphics.

"Every can is different — and every one of them has a different story," Banagan said.

"The most colorful ones go for the biggest money. Good cans are hard to find. Sometimes you find cans and they are filled with nails and screws.

"When I first started collecting them, people would give them to you," Banagan said with a little smile. "If I had started collecting 10 years before I did, I would have been good."

According to Banagan and Parlett, there used to be about 75 oyster companies in St. Mary's County. Now, it is an industry that has largely died.

Starting in 1925, according to "It Ain't Like It Was Then," a book written by Richard J. Dodds and Robert J. Hurry and published by the Calvert Marine Museum, health permit numbers were required on all cans.

If someone got sick eating oysters, the health department would be able to track where the oysters originated. Each facility had its own number.

"It is a wonder more people didn't get sick from eating oysters," Banagan said. "Some of the early tins were sealed with lead solder. When they opened the can, the solder would drip down onto the oysters."

When local companies went out of business, many of them destroyed their cans. Parlett said companies were worried that someone else, who might possibly have bad oysters, would use the cans.

"When they got out of the business, they got out of the business," Parlett said. "Some of these older oystermen don't even have one of the cans with their name on it."

Labeled oyster cans are not limited to companies that were located around the Chesapeake Bay; they can be found in Michigan, Ohio and even Iowa, Parlett said. In the early 20th century, oysters were harvested in Southern Maryland, trucked to and shucked in Baltimore, then packed in big cans and sent all over the country. Companies would repack the oysters in their own cans.

Prices for oyster cans with labels in good condition can range from a couple of dollars to thousands of dollars. The rarity and condition of the can drives the market.

Parlett said he knows hundreds of oyster can collectors, some with more than 2,000 cans in their collections.

"Everyone wants them all," he said. "We trade, we shop and we barter. I think the part I enjoy the most about collecting is getting the story behind it. People would say, `Are you still looking for oyster cans? Well, so and so has one.' I am kind of picky — I don't deal with rust buckets. Condition is everything. If you are a collector, you are always willing to upgrade, to find a better can."

Banagan said that local antique shops and even eBay are good sources for cans.

"The competition to find them is terrible," Banagan said.

"There are the high rollers, or people with lots of money, who can spend what they want to get a can. Sometimes you can find cans on eBay, and then someone comes in and outbids you. That can be frustrating. But there are still good cans out there."


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Monday, January 26, 2009

Oystering - a Skeleton of its History


Billy Lett uses 16-foot tongs to pull in a load of oysters in about 7 feet of water.

Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population was so abundant that Indians named the bay Chesepiook, or “great shellfish bay.“

Indians and European settlers easily collected oysters to eat.

Oysters kept many Jamestown settlers from starving.

The bay’s oyster fishery became the largest in the world in the late 1800s.

Its plight:

Today, the bay’s oyster population is estimated to be 1 percent or less of its size in the late 1800s.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only were oysters valuable as food, but their shells were an important building material.

Watermen took all the oysters and shells they could get.

With the reefs nearly wiped out, shell-less baby oysters found few places to take hold. That devastated reproduction.

Hope, trouble:

In the late 1920s, people began trucking in rocks from the west, and oyster shells were no longer needed for construction. State workers started tossing shells back in the water.

Oysters began coming back. Virginia’s landings topped 4 million bushels by the late 1950s.

Then diseases called MSX and Dermo, harmless to people, began killing oysters just before they reached market size.

Also, development along the bay and its rivers creates pollution that kills oysters and erosion that smothers them in mud.

The light of a cold dawn revealed an endangered species on the James River -- waterman Rodgers Green of Gloucester.

Green catches oysters the old-fashioned way, with 16-foot tongs that resemble two rakes attached like scissors.

Disease, pollution and long-ago overharvesting have sunk Virginia's oyster population to about 1 percent of a century ago. For Green, 55, thoughts of the future leave a bad taste in his mouth.

"This is about the last of it," Green said aboard his 36-foot workboat, the Donna Lisa. "I can't see nothing to encourage the younger generation to even try to get into it."

In the 1920s, thousands of oyster boats worked the slightly salty James in southeastern Virginia. In the 1980s, there were hundreds. Now, a big day would be 20, and on this morning only three were in sight.

"Oystering on the James is just a skeleton of its history right now," said Jim Wesson, head of oyster restoration for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

People familiar with the rocky James in Richmond would not recognize the waterway that Green and friend Billy Lett worked -- 5 miles wide, giant sky above.

Lett pulled up some oysters, swung the tongs close by Green's head and dumped the catch with a clatter on a wooden platform called the culling board.

There, Green's strong hands broke market-size oysters from masses of mussels, barnacles and too-small oysters, then swept the remains overboard.

At mid-morning, the temperature reached about 40, with little wind. In the brogue of the watermen, the river was "cam," or calm -- just right for catching "arsters."

The oyster was once so abundant in the bay region that huge piles of them and their shells -- variously called reefs, rocks, shoals or bars -- posed hazards to boats.

Parts of the James today, such as Wreck Shoal and Horsehead Shoal, were named after oyster reefs, which loomed just below the surface or, at low tide, jutted slightly above water.

Indians and early settlers waded to hand-pick oysters. Colonists took up tonging, and more-effective, mechanized dredges joined tongers' boats after the Civil War. By the end of the 1800s, the bay region's oyster fishery became the largest in the world, stocking restaurants from New York to San Francisco.

In the late 1800s, Virginia watermen harvested between 6 million and 8 million bushels a year. Today, the annual catch totals a meager 20,000 to 80,000 bushels.

On a typical day, Green and Lett collect eight to 10 bushels, which they sell for about $30 a bushel. After subtracting for gas and other expenses, the men made about $135 each.

A decade or so ago, Green said, "We'd catch twice that many in half the amount of time."

Chesapeake oysters are important to more than the palate and pocketbook. They filter dirt and other impurities from water. Their reefs provide homes for small crabs, fish and young oysters.

"Oysters are like coral reefs," said Tommy Leggett, an oyster scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group. "They provide a lot of the same ecological services."

The bay, like Rodgers Green, needs the oyster badly.

Since 1993, Virginia has spent about $40 million to bring back the oyster, doing such things as creating artificial reefs to which young oysters could attach.

During that time, the oyster declined an additional 60 percent. The main culprit was diseases called MSX and Dermo, harmless to people, that kill oysters as they approach market size.

The diseases, the first of which surfaced in the late 1950s, have been particularly deadly over the past two decades.

Oysters spawn in summer, producing shell-less, microscopic babies that float about before attaching to oyster shells. Then they grow their own shells and help build the reef.

The James historically produced oysters in huge numbers. Among other reasons, an unusual movement of the James' tidal waters doesn't take baby oysters far away. They remain close to their parents, increasing the odds that they can find shells to which they can attach and grow.

Through the decades, the James River oyster has never been particularly popular with diners. Some said they have a gray, snotty look.

But the James was a hot market for "seed oysters" -- tiny ones that buyers dropped in other rivers to harvest later.

The James declined as a source of seed oysters in recent years because, after all the effort of moving the young oysters, they ended up succumbing to disease.

The James, for all its troubles, has fought back. A roughly 5-mile stretch of the river near Newport News is salty enough for oysters but not for the diseases. There, the diseases infect the oysters but don't kill them. The oysters in that stretch produce the closest thing to natural reefs you can find anywhere, experts say.

"It's a national treasure," said Wesson of the marine resources commission. "It's just too unique to take any chance on losing it. There is just nowhere like it."

For that reason, the state does not allow mechanized oyster dredges there. But tongers like Green, who are less destructive, work that area for market oysters.

Raised by his grandparents, Green became a waterman at 13. "Granddaddy wasn't able to work, so I had to pretty well do it to take care of the family." His schooling ended in sixth grade.

Years of tonging have damaged Green's back, and the work often pains his wrists and forearms, a condition watermen call "tongitis."

But you can tell Green and Lett enjoy being on the water, where they have no boss and no time clock.

"It's the onliest thing I know how to do," Green said.

The men bantered as they worked, telling tales of the time Green tried to put a dead possum in Lett's truck, and of the day Lett pulled up a Navy bombshell from the Potomac River. Lett whistled at a loon, trying to make it call.

"This is the type of work where you take the bitter with the sweet," Lett said.

In hopes of restoring the industry, some people want to release an Asian oyster in the bay region; others say it could drive out the few remaining native oysters. Some believe the answer may be finding disease-resistant natives and growing them in cages.

Green hopes he can keep tonging James River oysters. On his boat, he pried one open. It looked tan and succulent.

For the record, it was delicious.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Skipjack's Extreme Makeover

By Timothy B. Wheeler

Oystering sailboat to teach about life on the bay
(Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / December 10, 2008)

Mike Vlahovich uses a plainer as he squares up an oak timber to be used as the inner bow stem on the mastless Caleb W. Jones in background on left.

The skipjack Caleb W. Jones is being restored at The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum by the staff and apprentices of the non-profit Coastal Heritage Alliance.

The deck of the Caleb W. Jones gleams with a fresh coat of white paint, as does the new cabin aft. Down below, though, the 55-year-old skipjack is showing its age - and even some daylight. You can poke three fingers through a hole in its rotted wooden hull.

Built in 1953, this remnant of the Chesapeake Bay's fading fleet of sail-powered oyster dredging boats is getting an extreme makeover at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. On dry ground for now, the Caleb's hull is being taken apart and put back together again, a timber and plank at a time.

"The boat was partially sunk when I got it," explains Mike Vlahovich, a veteran boat builder and founder of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit that works to preserve the vessels and culture of fishing communities. "It was pretty clear that no one really cared too much about it."

With the help of apprentices and volunteers, Vlahovich spent more than a year rehabbing the topside of the 44-foot skipjack while it sat in the water, its leaks controlled by pumping. A few weeks ago, he had it hoisted out of the water with a crane at the museum so he and his helpers could restore the hull on land.

"It has to be done in careful fashion, and braced up, so we don't lose shape," Vlahovich said. It's painstaking work, pulling the hull apart a bit at a time to replace the rotten wood. Like a jigsaw puzzle, no two pieces are exactly alike; each replacement piece must be carefully measured to fit the gap it must fill.

The restoration is being underwritten by the boat's owner, Michael Sullivan, a developer from Charles County. Sullivan, 53, grew up in Charles and has supported land-based historic preservation projects there. Though not a sailor himself, Sullivan said he was drawn to restore the Caleb W. Jones because his great-grandfather had worked on the water and had a skipjack.

"I just wanted to help preserve the heritage of Maryland," he says. "There are so few of them left."

Indeed, there are only five still dredging the bay bottom for oysters - three based in Somerset County, one that sails from Tilghman Island and one from Baltimore. In the late 1800s, more than a thousand reportedly plied the bay.

Read the rest of the article HERE:


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chesapeake Sportsman: Outdoorsmen Must be Environmentalists

By C.D. Dollar — For HometownAnnapolis

It’s a good bet that this year professional resource managers, conservation leaders and sport anglers will again discuss the best strategy to restore native oysters – important for fish habitat and clean water – to Maryland waters.

The geese flew late that frigid morning, and a pause in the blind banter offered a chance for the mind to wonder. How half of January had already swept past the hull remains a mystery, and soon my thoughts mulled over the fisheries and wildlife challenges confronting the collective outdoors community in 2009.

On a personal level, one of this year’s goals I’ve set is to simplify my life, pare down the extras that I probably can do without. That list, of course, is a work in progress, but so far much of it seems achievable. For example, I plan to buy more of the necessary staples that are made or grown locally, or catch, grow or shoot it myself.

What led me to zero in on this was the hunk of smoked goose passed down the bench in the blind. Infused with hints of orange, teriyaki, Old Bay and a few other spices, it was delicious, making the phrase “eat local” have real meaning – that goose was shot over the very field we were gunning. And over the holidays, my family and I enjoyed grilled oysters from the Choptank River, freshly caught Chesapeake rockfish, and plump crabmeat taken from the Wye.

(I could almost imagine being there - Oysterman).

While there is a practical reason for my undertaking – to save money of course – it has a philosophical bent as well. As the world struggles to untangle the financial mess ensnaring virtually every sector of the economy, I often wonder what compels some people to soar to new heights of avarice. What inspires them to squeeze out every extra ounce of resource just because they can?

Finish reading this excellent article here:


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Proper Way to Eat a Virginia Oyster


When it comes to oyster-eating here in the Pacific Northwest, I'm a bit of a purist. I believe that if you really want to taste and appreciate the beauty of our local oysters, there's only one way to do it: naked.

That is to say, to slurp oysters straight off the half-shell, unencumbered and free of such accoutrements as a reflexive squeeze of lemon, strings of fresh-grated horseradish, a dollop of zippy cocktail sauce or a drop or two of red wide vinegar-and-shallot mignonette.

OK. Wanna know how I really feel? I say save the Tabasco and cocktail sauce and salsa and shooters for oysters consumed in some other region of the country -- say, New Orleans, for instance. Someplace where maybe you don't want to taste oysters as much as do them. You know what I mean?

But, I digress.

The simple three-step method described below is a fairly foolproof way to eat raw oysters. Even if you're a newbie, you'll look like you know what you're doing.

Using your shellfish fork, make sure the oyster is completely detached from its shell. While admiring the beauty, grace and freshness of my oyster, I like to gently move it around a little to ascertain that it's ready to be gracefully slurped.

Grasp the oyster shell comfortably, cradling it in the nook between your thumb and first two fingers. Look for the best "sipping lip" on the shell. Alter your grasp, if you need to, so you can easily slurp both your oyster and its liquid from this point on the shell.

Lift the shell to your lips and, in one swift move, tip shell up and slurp both the oyster and juices into your mouth.


Savor the high note of briny freshness.

Think of the ocean.

Don't try to swallow your oyster whole.

While oysters don't require vigorous chewing, like squid or octopus, they do need to be caressed with your molars a few times. As you do this, you may notice other flavors (cucumber, melon, toasted almonds) emerge.


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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Oysters Carry a Special Promise

A single oyster filters as much as 50 gallons of water per day.

Oysters are delicious to our taste buds, economy and environment. This is the take-home message of a three-page profile of oystering in the current year-end special issue of the authoritative Economist magazine.

Still a big deal in Willapa and Netarts bays, oysters offer some surprising benefits, as The Economist makes clear. Primarily focusing on Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic Coast, this article heightens our feelings of gratitude and protectiveness for oystering as it is practiced around here.

For one thing, oystermen in the Chesapeake have always relied on a sort of natural propagation process and public ownership of oyster beds. In contrast, here on the West Coast the practice has been to proactively farm-raise oysters on privately owned or leased grounds. Our relatively sophisticated aquaculture techniques are now being taken up in Maryland, where oysters are increasingly being recognized as playing a critical role in purifying water.

A senior scientist on the Chesapeake told The Economist, "The oyster is pretty particular about what it eats, but it's not particular about what it filters." This means that water contaminants, especially things like nitrogen-based fertilizers, are taken out of the water column by oysters and processed back into a form that returns to the atmosphere. Phytoplankton that oysters eat would otherwise die and be consumed by bacteria, which use up oxygen needed by fish and crab. A single oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day.

All is not well for Oregon and Washington oysters. Changes in ocean chemistry, climatic conditions and possibly other factors are making it harder to grow fat and healthy oysters here. There hasn't been a robust natural reproductive seed-set process in nearly five years in Willapa Bay. We're obviously better off here than in Chesapeake, where the oyster population stands at only one percent of its pre-1980 level. But we still need to get our scientific and political assets fully engaged in making sure that oysters remain a key part of our economy and gastronomy.

"Oyster farming," the magazine noted, " is one of the few situations in which both economics and the environment win."


Friday, January 2, 2009

Shuck U - Using The Right Tool

by: Robb Walsh

The big brute of the oyster-shucking world is called a "Galveston knife" (on the left). It's an eight-inch knife with a stout four-inch blade designed for opening large oysters like the five-inch Espiritu Santo Bay oyster shown beside it. (Espritu Santo Bay is down around Port O'Connor.) The knife shown is an inexpensive plastic model available at restaurant supply stores for under $10.

America's best-known oyster shucking knife is the "Chesapeake stabber" (in the middle) which is a seven-inch knife with a bulb-shaped handle and a tapered four-inch blade. The pointy tip and thinner blade makes it easier to open normal-sized oysters like the three-inch Apalachicola Bay oyster shown beside it. Most serious oysters shuckers have a wooden-handled version of this knife in their toolbox. The plastic version is under $10 at a restaurant suppy store.

A tiny sharp oyster knive (right) is sometimes called a "Frenchman." They are made to open smaller and more fragile oysters like the Pacific oyster (left) and Kumamoto (right). The purple knife in the picture came free with a box of Beausoleil oysters, a tiny Virginica from New Brunswick, Canada.

I used to have some nice wooden-handled oyster knives, but they were confiscated by airport security at the Little Rock airport a couple of years ago. Oyster knife collectors pay big bucks for vintage specimens, so don't throw your old ones away.

Good article by: Robb Walsh

I have a couple of antique oyster knives that were my grand dad's. What could they be worth? Hmmm.