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Why It's A Great Time To Be A Chesapeake Oyster Lover
By: Lauren Ober
November 20, 2015
Livie is the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And she’s a local, which means she’s been eating oysters ever since she was a kid.
WAMU recently caught up with Livie at the Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in northwest Washington and talked with her about these briny little mollusks and their impact on the Bay.
What is it about oysters that you wanted to take a deep dive into?
I think out of all the species that are in the Bay, oysters have this interwoven history with the Chesapeake’s people. Oysters were this really compelling catalyst for colonization, for the oyster boom of the 19th century and this ongoing discussion today.
Oysters are a controversial topic. Also they encompass a lot of our fears about the future — what’s happening with our environment, what can we control, is there such a thing as a sustainable fishery? So much is going on around the oyster and I found all these issues so fascinating.
Now it seems like from what you describe in the book that there are two major declines in the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. How did they each start and what was the result of each?
The first decline is really a result of over-harvesting. We’re looking at just this ceaseless harvest of oysters in the 19th century, between the 1860s and the 1880s to 1890s. People are harvesting oysters not just for the meat, but for the shell. So they’re grinding up the shell and putting it in fertilizer or chicken feed.
And it’s not just the oysters themselves that are being destroyed. It’s also the reef structure, this source of biodiversity in the Bay. And so in the 1890s to the turn of the century, there’s new science that explores how oysters can be replenished. You really saw a sort of fruitful era of salad days for the Chesapeake to the nineteen-teens all the way up until the 1950s.
Maybe we could’ve continued with the sustainable wild fishery except for the arrival of two oyster diseases. Because of these diseases, this traditional oyster fishery was just destroyed. It was those diseases that were really the catalyst for environmental changes in the Bay and also for our rethinking of the Chesapeake stance on aquaculture.
So what is the state of oysters for consumption in the Bay today?
There is still a wild fishery in the Chesapeake, which may surprise some people. But typically wild oysters go mainly to the packinghouse market. They’re going to be shucked into those plastic containers that you see at the grocery store.
But then there’s a whole new side of the industry that’s exploded because of the work done to figure out what was going to be the solution to all these dead oysters in the Chesapeake. Thanks to science, recently people have figured out how to do aquaculture here.
The idea is that it’s farming very much like a land farm. You’ve got your crop, which is your oyster seed. You grow it in floats. And you maintain it the same way you would a crop. What we’re seeing is this explosion of oyster farms, which is the best thing ever. For oyster consumers in the Chesapeake, we’re seeing a renaissance.
What’s your strategy for ordering oysters at a restaurant?
It’s most important to get a variety that’s from different locations. That’s how you really compare and contrast between the flavors. Think of each oyster as a sea capsule containing the essential aspects of its environment from wherever it is. If it grew in an oyster bar that’s right near a marsh, it might taste green. Or if it grew at the bottom of the Bay right near the ocean, it’s going to be crunchy with salt. Oysters that are from the northern part of the Bay typically have a buttery consistency and flavor.
That’s just the initial experience. Then you chew it up and then other aspects of the flavor start to develop — coppery notes, or the minerality of the oyster, what has it ingested, that kind of thing. Then there’s the finish.
Do you have a favorite Chesapeake Bay oyster?
They’re all very different. So choosing a favorite isn’t because the other ones are bad, it’s just because that’s your preference.