Barren Island Oyster sign, photo by author.
To get to Barren Island Oysters, you wind your way along the sliver of highway snaking through Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Water and land blur together seamlessly, eagles plunge from aeries in pinwheeling fish surveillance. These intertidal edges, so prevalent at Blackwater, abound with life. Where the salinity rises closer to the Bay’s main stem, they also abound with oysters. Historically, the oyster populations here were wild. Now, to augment a struggling baseline of wild oysters, Maryland oyster harvesters are trying a new technique- growing the oysters they want to sell. Some of the people entering this new oyster farming industry fit the profile of the “traditional” watermen. Others, like Tim Devine, owner of Barren Island Oysters, are decidedly non-traditional.
Oyster farming is wet, dirty work. Bibs are an essential tool, especially in the winter, when wet clothes can be more than just uncomfortable- they can be dangerous. Photo by author.
Tim, a former New York photographer, grew up in nearby Easton, Maryland. He returned to his hometown when things in New York went south, looking to reconnect with his roots and find purpose in a new occupation that might help the Bay he’d fossil-hunted on as a kid. Oyster farming had just been green-lighted by the State of Maryland and Devine was ready to dive in. It hardly mattered, he thought, that he didn’t really like to eat oysters. Enough other people did, at places in New York and Washington, DC. Devine knew the market was there.
Buoys and Barren Island Oyster’s holding floats, with Barren Island in the distance. Photo by author.
Devine’s business is located on Hooper’s Island, but his oyster cages aren’t. Located in the protected bottom around Barren Island, just across Tar Bay, Devine’s choice of location was environmentally advantageous. It was also politically savvy. As his proposed oyster farm was in water already off limits to most other fishing, he wouldn’t be encroaching on bottom and therefore the traditional livelihood of watermen living on Hooper’s Island.
Devine is admittedly a bit of character. Outspoken and opinionated, he’s self-deprecating about pretty much everything other than his oysters. These, he’s proud to show, are beautifully formed, with deep cups and evenly tumbled edges. Their sweet, buttery taste has a creaminess that slides elegantly into a briny finish. Eating one, you tip the shell to get the last silky liquor inside. It’s no surprise when Devine starts ticking off the list of restaurants that are carrying the “BIO” brand. His oysters even won the 2014 Mermaid Kiss Oyster Festival’s “Best Oyster” award.
Oysters are sorted from cages to ready for packing and shipping. Image by author.
Inside the concrete-block building that functions as Barren Island Oyster headquarters, a few guys sort through the finished oysters, preparing to package them for shipping off to numerous Superbowl parties around the state. They’re Eastern Shore guys, friends of Tim’s or locals, who spend their days doing what their grandfathers used to do- oystering- just using some newfangled techniques. Once opened and savored, the basics are the same. Oysters, a delicate balance of tide, sunlight, current, and salt, are the essence of their environment. Grown on the leeward side of a Chesapeake island, Barren Island Oysters reflect the Bay’s ability to persevere, an ecological engine that keeps humming along, generation after generation.
Oysters headed down the conveyor belt for boxing. These are Devine’s “BIO” brand. He also sells a non-tumbled oyster under the “Ugly Oyster” label, whose tagline boasts Devine’s own brand of humor: “They’ve Got Great Personalities.” Image by author.
Oysters, boxed and ready for shipping. Image by author.
One of Barren Island Oyster’s shucked shellfish. Image by author.
Dorchester County is one of Maryland’s largest producers of aquaculture oysters. Three oyster farms, Hooper’s Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, Choptank Oyster Company, and Barren Island Oysters, are all within a 45 minute drive of each other down one of the Chesapeake’s quintessential marsh landscapes. To find out more, or try Barren Island oysters for yourself, check out Dorchester County’s tourism page: http://bit.ly/1xtHwVW