The Chesapeake Is Their Oyster

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Oyster farming on Chesapeake Bay is on the rise thanks to the opening of new oyster grounds and the streamlining of regulations. Once home to the most prolific oyster grounds on the planet, the Chesapeake’s oyster harvest today is just 1 percent of its historic highs, the victim of a century’s worth of overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and disease. But despite the doom and gloom picture that number seems to paint, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Twelve-year-old Sam Pruitt and his father use oyster aquaculture to bolster their earnings from crabbing and fishing.

Not only have wild harvests improved in recent years, but a growing number of commercial watermen and women are turning to aquaculture, filling the demand for these tasty bivalves. Behind almost every one of these operations is an immensely interesting cast of characters with an ostensibly common goal: crafting the perfect oysters and healing the Bay.

So many oyster farms are on the Bay today that the state of Virginia has conjured an “Oyster Trail” that runs from farm to farm around the Lower Bay. I recently set out to blaze my own small Maryland oyster trail, with a plan to visit two of the more robust and colorful aquaculture operations on Maryland’s side of the Bay. I started about an hour from home, just west of Cambridge.

Choptank Sweets

Take a starboard turn around Castle Haven Point on the Choptank River, and one of the first things you’ll see is several hundred square white floats carpeting the water. The floats are home sweet home to about 6 million oysters belonging to the Choptank Oyster Co. One of the older Maryland-based oyster farms, having set up shop in 1999, the company grows Choptank Sweets, a light and flavorful oyster with a deep cup and sweet finish. Kevin McClarren runs the show here. He has a linebacker build and an infectious sense of humor, and his passion for oysters is surpassed only by his love of a good craft brew.

A marine biologist by trade, McClarren gets to talking about oysters and soon outmatches the loud rattling coming from the oyster tumbler behind him. “This isn’t an easy business,” McClarren says, loudly. “The regulations are insanely strict, we’ve got Mother Nature to fight, and sometimes circumstances simply out of your own control will wipe out a vast section of your crop. Lots of folks come in with plans to start an oyster business with no idea how much money and frustration are involved. Plenty of people get started only to drop out when they wipe out their first crop of seed oysters.”

An oyster “seed” is a baby oyster. Oysters spawn when water temperatures reach 74 to 86 F, and farmers can take advantage of this natural trigger to breed oysters in a controlled environment. Once a male oyster’s sperm fertilizes a female’s eggs, a larva is created. The microscopic larva matures, eventually growing a foot that it uses to navigate around its environment.

During this time the larva seeks a substrate for permanent attachment. In the wild, that means other oysters or most any stationary, hard surface. In a farming or a seed operation, finely crushed oyster shells or sand are introduced. Once the oyster is attached to a substrate, it’s called “spat.” They’re so small at this point that a million of them can fit in a human hand, resembling a mound of dark sand.

One million seed oysters fit in the palm of a hand.

Though commercial watermen say oyster farms crowd them out of crabbing and fishing grounds, the benefits of having many millions of oysters soaking in the water seem to outweigh those concerns. Most notable is that oysters are prolific filter feeders, with the ability to clean as many as 50 gallons of water per day. An additional benefit is that a small percentage of farmed oysters occasionally spawn, releasing oyster larvae into the surrounding waters. “The filtering capability of this farm at full tilt is as much as 250 million gallons of water a day,” McClarren says. “We’ve also noticed additional spat set in the creek outside the farm boundaries, which is enhancing the local population of oysters. It’s a win-win, if you ask me.”

Barren Island Oysters

Farther south, a couple of miles north of the Honga River, two isolated islands stand stoically against the wind and waves of the open Chesapeake. Just south of them lies the lease for Barren Island Oysters, home of 4 million to 6 million bivalves.

Timothy Devine was once a commercial photographer in New York City. Burned out on city life and the advertising world, he yearned to create something with his hands. Pig farming is what first came on his radar, but oysters are what stuck. Today, Devine — a spindly, animated Eastern Shore native — has a thriving operation on Hooper’s Island that ships oysters all around the Bay and beyond.

“Yup, I killed my first million oysters pretty quickly,” Devine says with a laugh. “There is nothing about this business that’s predictable. You can do everything with the best intentions but screw up very spectacularly — and very quickly. Most folks don’t have the resources or patience for such things. Crazy people like me have a way of seeing things through.”

Devine huffs on a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth as he shows me his custom-built upwelling system. “We take our oyster seed and pummel it with creek water that’s filled with algae to fatten them up,” he says. “Once they’re about the size of a quarter, we put them in mesh bags and set them in the water south of the islands, where they take on a bright, sweet taste. Takes about three years to see a crop through.”

He and most other oyster farmers use triploid oysters that are engineered with a set of chromosomes that keeps them from spawning. That means they can be enjoyed year-round, unlike traditional oysters, which can be watery and unpleasant to eat when they’re expending energy on romantic encounters. To prove the tastiness of summer triploid oysters, Devine shucks me four huge, deep-cupped samples straight from the cages. They’re as tasty as I remember, having sampled a half-dozen Barren Islands earlier in the year at my local raw bar.

“That old saying about enjoying oysters only in months with an R in them isn’t tuned to modern day,” Devine says. “With our specially bred oysters and ample refrigeration, they can be enjoyed whenever you get a hankering for one.”

As regulations ease and the leasing and permitting process streamlines, expect to see a new wave of oyster farming sweep across Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. While there’s a lot of catching up to do in regard to Virginia’s oyster farming, a dedicated group of individuals is hell-bent on making Maryland No. 1 in oyster aquaculture.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue.