Oysters on the rise


      The extensive oyster selection at Portland, Maine’s Eventide oyster bar.

An article, titled “Oysters Ascendant”, in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal highlighted the bright environmental and economic future for farmed oysters in America. From Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, aquaculture oysters are booming in popularity- thanks to the emphasis on sustainable, slow food. As traditional sources of wild oysters are being negatively impacted by disease, overharvest, and in the case of the Gulf, oil, farmed oysters are taking their place in the fish markets and oyster bars of the United States. Customers pay premium prices for oysters of varying species and origin, seeking for that happy marriage of brine, algae, and oyster flavor that aficionados call “merroir” (with echoes of the ‘terroir’ referred to by oenophiles).


          “Pemaquids” and “Glidden Points” on order at a boutique oyster bar.

Oyster connoisseurs often refer to the location of an oyster’s harvest (rather than their species) to define distinct characteristics about their taste, intensity, aroma and saltiness, from New York’s “bluepoint”,  Florida’s “appalachicola”, to Massachusetts’ “wellfleet”. Chesapeake oysters, traditionally with only one specialized variety, “chincoteagues”, are now being differentiated and monikered by the up-and-coming aquaculture ventures that have proliferated in the southern reaches of the Bay. Consumers hungry for oysters of Bay origin now have the option of bellying up to an oyster bar and ordering a dozen half-shell “choptank sweets”, “watchhouse points”, “olde salts” or “parrot islands”, to name but a few.


             The author as oyster oenophile- it’s all about the merroir.

Oyster consumers are largely driving these changes in the oyster economy, seeking a supply of shellfish that matches their demand for variety, quality, novelty, and sustainability. Aquaculture oyster growers meet those needs, offering oysters year round, continuously raising new generations of oysters to replace those sold, and harnessing the marketing appeal of a name whose cachet embodies place and taste. The Chesapeake aquaculture industry has certainly felt the impact of the demand for these 'boutique’ oysters- since 2007, the number of farmed oysters have exploded, with annual figures growing from 5 million to 23 million. Although most of the current Chesapeake industry is focused on the Virginia part of the estuary due to their traditional embrace of oyster aquaculture, the trend is growing in Maryland, as well, with the ushering in of legislation in 2005 that removed much of the red tape for oyster entrepreneurs in the state.


Boutique oysters also command higher prices than their wild-caught brethren, but rarely do they compete in the same markets, as many of the farmed oysters are destined for veritable 'oyster palaces’- specialty restaurants supplying named varieties of oysters arrayed on glaciers of mounded ice, serving half-shell to gourmand customers. Farmed oysters, with their smooth, tumbled shell, uniform size, and colorful appelations, are produced almost solely to meet these criteria of what is called the “half shell” market, where a premium price is commanded for a pretty, appealing oyster. Wild-caught oysters, on the other hand, are often destined for the shucking market, where the price per oyster is lower and their misshapen or barnacle-studded shells end up on the floor rather than a bed of ice and lemon.

It’s a sea change in the oyster market, and one that could easily change the face of oyster harvesting and populations in the Chesapeake over the next decade, whether you’re a consumer, a producer, or a waterman working the Bay’s bottom.

Interested in learning where oysters are being farmed, or about the trend for boutique oysters?  Check out the Wall Street Journal article cited above, or take a look at In a Half Shell , a blog following the gustatory adventures of one young  oyster connoisseur that features a comprehensive list that’s always growing.