Friday, July 21, 2017  

Chesapeake Bay Oysters
Crassostrea Virginica

For as long as the oyster has existed throughout the various regions of the world, mankind has had a love affair with it for a myriad of reasons. Oysters are a study in contrasts. The rough coarse shell gives way to the succulent and briny flesh that is so sought after by those who have acquired a taste and appreciation for this succulent bi-valve.

An oyster on the half shell is a perfect explosion of flavors and textures. The truth is that Chesapeake Bay oysters almost have an intangible quality to them that defies description. To savor one is a taste of pure oyster heaven.

The English who first set sail into the Chesapeake Bay, along with Captain John Smith and later explorers, were very familiar with oysters in England and other parts of Europe. However according to their own words, the oysters they had enjoyed in their native lands were dwarfed by the size and flavor of the Chesapeake Bay oysters that they encountered here. Oyster connoisseurs consider the various types of Chesapeake Bay oysters to be among the very best in the entire world. Of course all of us here in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, whether natives or “come heres,” would agree without hesitation.

In 1676, Thomas Glover, an early explorer of the Chesapeake Bay wrote, “here are such plenty of oysters that they may load ships with them. At the mouth of Elizabeth River, when it is low water, they appear as rocks a foot above water.”

The explorer Francis Louis Michel, in 1701 also recorded his observations regarding the oysters in the bay, stating that “The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them, so that the ships must avoid them… They surpass those in England by far in size, indeed, they are four times as large. I often cut them in two before I could put them into my mouth.”

What a sight this must have been. The native oysters found in the Chesapeake Bay, known as Crassostrea Virginica, lived out their life cycle on massive oyster reefs that were often over 20’ tall and several miles long. The reefs were said to be so large that they were on occasion a hazard to ships and other large vessels that navigated the waterways of the Bay. For thousands and thousands of years these reefs were formed and provided the perfect habitat for the Chesapeake Bay oysters. The reefs allowed the oysters to feed well, enjoy good water circulation and also protected them from predators and being mired in mud and a silty bottom.

A fully grown oyster is capable of filtering up to 60 gallons of water per day. At one time, it is estimated that the abundance of oysters present in the bay could filter the entire Chesapeake Bay in about one week. Over harvesting in the past, natural disasters and disease has destroyed much of the natural oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. Today less than one percent of the original oyster population remains in the Bay. Without the natural oyster population to keep up with the filtration needs of the bay there is more algae and sediment in the water that blocks the much needed sunlight. Less sunlight leads to fewer marshes and grass beds which has an effect on the habitat of the blue crab and other types of fish and aquatic species.

Oystering Harvesting 
on the Chesapeake Bay

Oysters from the bay were popular throughout the colonies, but reached the heights of their popularity during the Victorian era. They were savored and devoured in large quantities by all classes of people during this time. These oysters were traditionally scraped or tonged off the bottom from oyster beds. Over-harvesting would eventually have a detrimental effect on the bay and on the oyster trade.

The oyster trade on the Chesapeake Bay also had its share of conflicts, as a new form of harvesting oysters was created between 1879 and 1881 known as the dredge. Dredgers typically operated in water deeper than 22 feet. Tongers could harvest oysters in the waters up to 22 feet. Anyone who has ever held a set of tongs or seen them in action can tell you that it takes an incredible amount of upper body strength and grit to use them. Not to mention that the oystering season was between September and April, when the bay was not at all friendly.

During this conflict, the dredgers were not content to continue harvesting in deeper waters and began illegally harvesting oysters and taking over the oyster grounds of the tongers. What ensued as a direct result was a period in our maritime history on the Rappahannock River and in the lower Chesapeake Bay known as “The Oyster Wars.” Information on the Oyster Wars can be found in various books and at the Mariner’s Museum, in Norfolk, Virginia. As a result of the Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, both Maryland and Virginia, to this very day, still maintain “bay patrols in order to maintain law and order between watermen.” The form of dredging practiced during the end of the 19th century ended around 1940.

In the 1930s, non-native species of oysters were introduced into the bay 
with the hopes of increasing the numbers of oysters present in the bay. What resulted was the introduction of various diseases that decimated the remaining oyster population.

And now for the good news…

Native oyster populations are increasing in the bay, due to innovative technology, sponsored and implemented by the public, private and non-profit sectors. Within the Chesapeake Bay watershed area, farmers are continually improving their “best agriculture practices” upon the land and the same is now true of farming (aquaculture) practices used under water.

Independent citizens and small companies are producing high quality oysters for market that not only benefit the ecology of the bay, but their local economies as well. Rappahannock River Oysters, LLC., owned and operated by cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton, is one of these companies.

These young men are carrying on the legacy of oystering, as they come from a long line of Rappahannock River oystermen. The Croxton’s produce four types of gourmet native oysters, at various locations in Chesapeake Bay waters. Additionally, they have won numerous awards and a following of discerning chefs for the quality and distinctive taste of their oyster varieties. Their oysters are sold in the shell to restaurants and consumers.

The four distinctive brands of native oysters they produce with different tastes and salinity levels are their “Rappahannock River,” “Stingray,” “Witch Duck” and “Olde Salts” brands. Their “Rappahannock River Oysters” are raised near Topping, Virginia. The “Stingray” brand hails from Mobjack Bay. The “Witch Duck” Oysters, being Lynnhaven oysters, are raised at Witch Duck, near Virginia Beach and the “Olde Salts” brand hails from the saltier waters surrounding Chincoteague.

All of their oysters are native and aquaculture grown. “As a way to spread the gospel of aquaculture, we have just launched the “Barcat” Oyster Program, in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The program is designed to teach the art of aquaculture to “old school” oystermen and eventually create a Bay-wide co-op of 21st-century farmers. 10% of the retail proceeds go directly to the Bay Foundation for education and oyster reef restoration,” says Ryan Croxton. Anyone interested in this program is invited to contact the Croxtons or the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for details. Ryan and Travis Croxton are recipients of the 2005 Food & Wine Magazine “Tastemaker’s Award,” given each year to top talents who have changed the world of food and wine before the age of 35.

Remarkably true to their Croxton ancestry, they are both oyster visionaries who have made their mark, just like those who have gone before them. In 1899 their great grandfather, J. A. Croxton, Jr., only 24 at the time, began the legacy that continues to this very day. Beginning near Bowlers Wharf, in the Rappahannock River, he began his oyster business with the intent of supplementing his farm income.

What is Aquaculture?

Determined to find out for myself what comprises aquaculture, the Bevans Oyster Company, graciously allowed me to have a look into the latest technologies that are being utilized by their company, working with the appropriate agencies at work in the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond.

Typically oysters grown for production are grown “off bottom” in protected cages and positioned where food is abundant for the developing oysters and where their waste products can be carried away by moving water. Oysters grown this way mature at a much faster rate than wild oysters. They are protected from natural predators and result in plumper, richer tasting and more rounded oysters. With their predators neutralized and being situated where the food is abundant and the currents flow freely, they have no deterrent to healthy, optimal growth. Oysters in the wild grow at a rate of 1” per year. Cultivated oysters grow at a much faster rate and are already 3” - 4” at one year of age. As disease generally affects oysters around two years of age, the modern methods used in aquaculture enable the harvesting of healthy oysters before oyster diseases affect them.

The oyster industry in the Middle Peninsula and on the Northern Neck, as well as throughout the Chesapeake Bay region is promising as the latest technology and best minds work toward restoring the appropriate balances needed in the bay.

Bevans Oyster Company is the largest oyster processing facility on the East Coast. Bevans’ research is resulting in new and better ways of re-populating the native oysters for release into the wild and for harvest. They strive to continually strike the balance between oyster harvesting, planting new oysters on a large scale, cultivation, conservation, research and rebuilding reef habitats lost long ago.

In 2005 they began the first phase of their FLUPSY system, which is an acronym for floating up-weller system.
In 2006 they began their caged systems for “off bottom” oyster growth which places the oysters in a protected optimal environment for accelerated growth.

In 2006/2007 their spat on shell development program began and looks very promising. In layman’s terms, this process consists of large lined tanks that are filled with water that has been filtered to take out larger particles but leave a good food supply and river water. The tanks also contain mesh bags filled with recycled oyster shells that have been optimally prepared to provide the best possible home site for the oyster larvae to latch on to. Finally tens of millions of oyster larvae are introduced into the controlled tank environment. According to A.J. Erskine, Bevans Oyster Company’s marine scientist, about 10 million oyster larvae can fit into the palm of your hand. Air is then gently pumped into the tanks creating a bubbling effect that simulates natural currents along with encouraging the larvae to find a shell to latch onto. These larvae, which already has an eye of sorts, searches for a place to call home. After it has latched on, it then develops its own shell.

These programs have taken the Bevans from a large scale processing only facility to a company on the cutting edge of breeding and nursery programs that benefit not only their company but will hopefully help them to also work toward the continual development of disease free oyster populations in the bay. They are participating with research studies currently going on, regarding the possibility of introducing non-native oysters at some point into the bay.

One of the methods used for promoting oyster growth and maturity is to place seed oysters, about six weeks of age, in protected cages that are surrounded by recycled oyster shells. These cages are then loaded onto oyster boats equipped with cranes and lowered into the river where they can mature, protected from their greatest natural enemy, the cow nosed ray.

Thanks to the efforts of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, oyster restoration projects, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay office, VIMS, the private sector of oyster producers and harvesters, concerned individuals and a host of other entities, our native oysters are now getting the helping hand that they deserve. New oyster reefs are being constructed using recycled oyster shells from oyster processors and the seafood industry. These reefs are situated based on detailed studies surrounding oyster spawning, reproduction and growth.

Scientists are working on breeding new strains of native oysters that are resistant to a variety of oyster diseases. Several studies are promising. Experimentation is also being done in the area of non-native oysters and whether or not they are a viable option for the bay’s oyster industry. The introduction of new species is proceeding with caution. Past experimentation with introducing new species is what originally introduced the diseases that have adversely affected the native oyster in decades past and to this very day. The restoration of the Chesapeake Bay’s native oyster population is a priority.

There are differing opinions and a host of scientific studies currently underway related to the introduction of non-native oysters to help supplement the populations of native oysters in the bay.

“The research surrounding these possible introductions is a major scientific undertaking. Suffice it to say, this is the most extensively studied intentional introduction in the world. My opinion is that the non-native crassostrea ariakensis holds much potential in Virginia and Maryland, as also evidenced by the support during public meetings. But some people don’t agree with it. One fact is clear, however, that the native Crassostrea Virginica population is not yet recovered… This is where scale of different operations comes into play. If enough companies get into aquaculture on various scales there could be a significant difference in water quality, etc. But having access to two species of oyster only means that more operations will expand and ecological services will increase,” says A.J. Erskine, Aquaculture Manager and Field Scientist for Bevans Oyster Company and Cowart Seafood Corporation.

The oyster industry in the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay in general is promising as the latest technologies and best minds work toward restoring the appropriate balances needed in the bay.

If you have been a lover of oysters, as we have, it is our sincerest hope that this article has given you an even greater appreciation and awareness of those who are working diligently to ensure 
the availability of an abundant and healthy supply of oysters that benefits both the ecology of the Bay and the local economy as well. 

Written by Karin Andrews, Contributing Writer