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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.