Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And for an oyster lover, a dozen on the half-shell, plump, cupped in their own vitality, are a lovely sight only to be topped by their taste. However, our appreciation is a fleeting thing. We toss them back at oyster bars until the empty shells clatter without a thought about where they came from or where they’re going. Other than mostly regional names we call oysters by to order them, we don’t wonder much about the mollusks we just consumed.
For the longest time in the Chesapeake, those regional names were a pretty short list, indeed- either ‘Chesapeake’ or 'Chincoteague’ (the distinction between the two was the milder taste of the former and the saltier tang of the latter). Other places might have 'Bluepoints’ or 'Appalachicolas’ or 'Wellfleets’, each oyster connoting a different point of supply and therefore a different flavor (or 'merroir’ as aficionados refer to it), but the Bay’s oysters were never really distinguished the way oyster varieties further North or South might be.
Some of the collection of oyster cans at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
That wasn’t from lack of trying- in the 19th century, during the height of the oyster boom in the Chesapeake, hundreds of packing houses established individual brand names and emblazoned them across thousands of metal cans, hoping to coax the public into purchasing their “Sailor Brand” or “Bevans” or “Honga” oysters. But none of these titles really stuck- and throughout the 20th century, when you ordered “Chesapeake,” you got “Chesapeake”- from any old spot in the Bay proper.
Choptank Sweets, grown just a little west of Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
But that’s all starting to change, as the Chesapeake’s oyster industry grows to include aquaculture, a method of raising oysters by hand from spat to market-size. Much like agriculture on land, an oyster farm is a year-round process involving seed, crop management, eradication of pests, and a lot of manual labor.
It’s an approach that in most of the Bay is a new idea, but one that yields a predictable harvest (hurricanes notwithstanding) and a stable income. A handful of fledgling companies in Virginia and Maryland are having a go at the process, growing their crop in floating cages at the water’s surface in prime oyster territory where the oxygen is rich and the algae abounds. They grow their oysters, rather than wild-harvesting them, for a few reasons: aquaculture ventures aren’t subject to seasonal or catch restrictions the way watermen are, the oysters generally grow faster and larger in the cages, and with tending to keep them pretty and regular, aquaculture oysters are all ready for the more-lucrative half shell market.
Oysters in floats from the dock of Marinetics in Cambridge, Maryland
More oysters in the Bay are a good thing- for the environment and for the economy. One of the ways aquaculture ventures are looking to distinguish their oysters from their wild-caught Chesapeake competition is by naming them, like their New England and Gulf counterparts. These farmed varieties, which, as Crassostrea virginicas, are biologically identical to their brethren harvested from the Bay’s bottom, boast whimsical titles like 'Shooting Point Salts,’ 'Witch Ducks,’ 'Forbidden Oysters’ or 'Pleasure House Oysters’. Evocative of the Bay’s biodiversity, marshy landscape, and the silky, delicate flavor encouraged by the Chesapeake’s brackish water, aquaculture oyster industries hope to distinguish their particular bounty by appealing to all of a consumer’s senses.
Oyster aquaculturist Kevin McClaren on the dock at Marinetics.
The people of the oyster industry are a pragmatic bunch, whether working as watermen or as aquaculturists; don’t let the fancy boat or oyster names fool you. Kevin McClaren, aquaculturist at Marinetics, which produces the 'Choptank Sweet’ oyster, is no exception. He speaks plainly and knowledgeably about the process of growing and harvesting his oysters, and though he’s clearly an advocate of his own brand, he makes no bones about the work involved in the process and some of the hard decisions he’s made since the venture was started several years ago.
Since oyster farming with floats as a practice is still in its infancy, experimentation is part of the business. Whether to start from your own spat (baby oysters) or to buy it in from a lab, whether to go with oysters that reproduce naturally, known as 'diploids’, or get the sterile 'triploids’ that will grow much faster but not replace themselves, or even whether to grow your oysters on the top of the Bay in floats or to manage them on bottom leases instead: it all depends on your business, your location, and what you’re looking to produce. It’s still a wild-west industry, where innovation, a lot of sweat, and not a little self-promotion are key to success.
Kevin’s product, Choptank Sweets, are sold for the wholesale market, destined for restaurants and oyster bars throughout the Chesapeake. Raised on the water’s surface and fed with the natural plankton supply close to the to the waterline, his oysters grow much more rapidly than their wild counterparts 20 feet down or more. Within a year, some oysters can grow up to 3 inches- in contrast to uncultivated oysters, for which an inch a year is more typical. The faster your oysters grow, the faster you can get them legal size (3 inches) and to market, right- so that’s a good thing? Not according to Kevin- who explains that the quickly-grown oyster frequently has a thin, brittle shell, which is a nightmare to shuck and ruins the oysters for the profitable half-shell market.
As Virgina and Maryland legislation grows to encourage more aquaculture ventures like Marinetics, the culture of Chesapeake oystering will change to include these new, experimental techniques and technology. And as some of the shorelines of Bay tributaries slowly begin to encapsulate with oyster floats as protons hovering around their nucleus of docks and posts, new and experimental oyster varieties will accordingly proliferate on chalk-board menus- certainly a good thing for the centuries-old Chesapeake oyster fishery. Because for everyone that agrees that we all want more oysters in the Chesapeake- there are ten more people that agree that they want more oysters on their plate, whether they’re called 'Chunu’ or 'Watch House Point’, 'Olde Salts’ or 'Choptank Sweets’. Whatever you call their oysters, just don’t call their consumers late to dinner.
For more information on Marinetics and their brand, Choptank Sweets, check out their site here: http://bit.ly/XeOTSb
And this great oyster-lover’s blog, In a Half Shell , offers a fairly comprehensive list of some of the more established aquaculture brands in the Chesapeake, as well as further up and down the East Coast: http://bit.ly/X99N6M