In the slowest harvest year ever, is this our Bay oyster's 11th hour?
Despite dismal health, native Virginica oysters are still caught and served in Chesapeake Country.
by M.L. Faunce
From Maryland's rural Eastern Shore to the more populated Western Shore, from Baltimore to beyond the Beltway, when the air crisps and the leaves turn, Marylanders want oysters.
Despite dwindling supplies and dismal forecasts, oysters are sought and found. Oyster roasts reign at volunteer firehouses in Southern Maryland. Stand at the bar in historic Middleton Tavern at City Dock in Annapolis or at Happy Harbor on Rockhold Creek in Deale and you'll discover the most popular bar food is oysters, not nachos. Not content with a raw oyster on the half-shell, legions of oyster lovers slurp down shooters, oysters served with cocktail sauce and a shot of beer on the side. Prefer your oysters cooked? Happy Harbor serves Oysters Southern Maryland, Oysters Karen, Oysters Friendship, Oysters Ohio, Oysters Caribbean, Oysters New Jersey, in addition to oysters five or six traditional ways. Across the Bay on the Eastern Shore, Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island and Harris Crab House at Kent Narrows both offer Friday-night buffets laden with oysters.
At Thanksgiving, Maryland dinner tables will groan under turkeys stuffed and dressed with oysters. On Christmas Eve, Mary Watters of Churchton still plans on serving her family's favorite baked oyster recipe. Around the state, Marylanders by the bushel will stew up steaming bowls of the beloved bivalves from now through April.
Where are all those oysters coming from? Surely not from our oyster-depleted native waters.
Breaking the Law of Supply and Demand
Degraded water, sedimentation, loss of habitat, over-harvesting and disease have ravaged the Chesapeake's legendary shellfish. The same problems make the future look as bleak as the present.
Chesapeake Bay, our back bays and ocean waters used to teem with native Virginica oysters. No more.
Numbers tell the sorry story.
We're a long way from the harvest we once had, even in the 1970s and '80s. Over two million bushels of oysters were annually harvested before disease mortality struck in 1987. A century earlier, a whopping 10 million and more bushels of oysters were harvested annually in Maryland.
Last year's harvest was an all-time low of 26,495 bushels, according to Chris Judy, Maryland Department of Natural Resource's man on shellfish. To put that figure in perspective, it's only half the previous all-time low, a then-low 55,840 bushels harvested in 2003. In that company, 1994's previous all-time low of 79,618 bushels seems abundant.
This year, Judy imagines a new record will be set. “It's been a slow start to the season, the worst ever in terms of boats and people working,” he said. “We were used to seeing about 100 boats working; now we see only a couple of dozen.”
What happens to an industry when demand outstrips supply — and there's no more supply to be had? What does scarcity mean to watermen who should be at the top of the food chain? What about the shuckers, who would shuck if they could shuck?
What do you do when your menu calls for oysters, oysters and more oysters?
“We try to have Chesapeake Bay oysters for our shucking contest and raw bar sales,” said David Taylor, administrator for the hugely popular annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival, where tens of thousands of oysters are consumed each October. “We haven't had all Maryland oysters at the festival in six or seven years. Last month, we had oysters from Chester River, but also from New Jersey, Virginia and the Carolinas.”
This year was tighter than ever, for neighboring oyster waters were suffering their own problems. “Everybody was in a pinch because the hurricanes closed the Gulf Coast to oystering, and when no oysters are coming from the Gulf, it puts a squeeze on other supplies,” said Taylor. “There was talk of bringing oysters all the way from Washington state, but that proved unnecessary.”
As at the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival, the majority of oysters sold in Maryland now come from out of state. Most oysters you're eating this season in Chesapeake Country come from the Gulf Coast, according to Karen Oertel, whose family packing plant, W.H. Harris Seafood in Grasonville, shucks the bulk of local oysters.
Trading in Maryland's Last Oysters
|photo by Sandra Martin
Oysters come direct from the Bay to Bud Harrison's family's shucking house on Tilghman Island, which keeps the family restaurant serving Chesapeake oysters.
However scarce, Maryland oysters can still be found — if you know where to look for them.
Levin Faulkner Harrison IV, called Bud or Little Bud after his father Captain Buddy Harrison, says oysters served at the family's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island are all local. Points of origin differ from week to week; at the end of October, the oysters came from the Deal Island-Tangier Sound area of Chesapeake Bay.
“We try to serve something a little more saltier for half-shell stock, and this small round oyster can't be beat,” said Harrison of the bushels shucked for waiting diners.
Chesapeake House serves 20 bushels of oysters on a typical weekend. At about 220 oysters per bushel, that's a lot of oysters on the half-shell. To supply their needs, Harrison buys from watermen, who are independent contractors and set their own price. Price drives everything, but buying for cash often wins out close to the weekend says Harrison.
A different Bay oyster is cooked at Chesapeake House (and sold by the pint and quart when supplies allow). The difference shows. The Chester River oysters harvested by a couple of hand-tongers early this year Harrison described, with no exaggeration, as “big as my hand.” Trouble is, the oystermen were tonging in only about eight bushels per boat each day.
“We're hoping things will improve with the skipjack dredge season, which opened in the upper Bay November 1,” Harrison said.
The old local skipjack style of working sailboat is about as rare as the oysters they catch. Because they're at a disadvantage against today's gas and diesel-powered oyster boats, state regulation allows a motorized push boat to assist the larger craft two days a week. To further level the playing field, skipjacks are the only oyster boats allowed to dredge for oysters.
On the Thomas Clyde, Captain Lawrence Murphy is now harvesting about 75 bushels a day, working his skipjack under motor two days a week and sometimes a third day under sail if conditions are perfect.
Bud Harrison calls Thomas Clyde's catch “very nice oysters, a little bigger and cleaner because they're being dredged out in the middle of the Bay where it's a little fresher, from a bottom that has always been dredged, so the oysters are spread out and can grow bigger.”
In Crisfield, oyster packer and shipper Harvey Linton also swears by the Maryland oyster. It sells itself, he says, “not only by name, but also by the quality and taste.
“I don't buy oysters from Texas and Louisiana,” said Linton, who has worked the water for 33 years — “since I was a kid” — before turning seafood wholesaler. “All my seafood comes from this area.”
Linton also sells the salty Chincoteague oysters to restaurants from Baltimore to Rehoboth Beach, from Washington to Deale. He ships all over the U.S. and the world. Wholesale and retail sales over the Internet accounts for about 35 percent of his business, Linton says.
Deep connections to the water and established relationships with suppliers keep both Harrison and Linton in Chesapeake oysters.
The Shape of Luck
|photo by M.L. Faunce
Chris Judy, DNR's man on oysters, expects this year's harvest to be the lowest ever.
Below, a healthy reserve oyster, left, versus one blighted by disease.
Both oyster purveyors like to think they're finally getting a break.
“It looks like we're going to have oysters this year,” said Harrison. “Out of nowhere, we have a lot of small oysters, one and a half to two inches. Lots of bars covered with them.”
That good fortune he ascribes to forces outside human control: the hurricanes this year and Isabel last year may have helped.
“There's an old saying that a bad wind always does someone good,” Harrison said. “Flow is good, and in another good year they will be harvestable if [the rampant oyster diseases] MSX and dermo don't kill them. We will be watching them very close. They survived this August and September, so I'm kind of optimistic that we have a natural oyster set coming back.”
“Less bad water this year,” is how Linton describes the shape of luck. “July and August are usually hard on oysters, but this year fresh water helped flush everything out,” he said. “Fresh water helps oysters more than anything in the world; it makes them fatter because they grow faster.”
Drought years that began in 1999 have been hard on the oyster harvest, for they've brought higher salinity with consequent high levels of disease and mortality. Karen Harris Oertel, of the Harris clan's Harris Crab House at Kent Narrow on the Eastern Shore, calls the flow of fresh water a “reprieve” for oysters and for watermen.
DNR's Chris Judy agrees that a little good luck has finally come Chesapeake way. “With fresh water flow over a very large area of the Bay, oyster mortality has declined. Mortality has lessened, survival is better,” he said.
But, cautions the scientist, it's too little, too late.
“Even good news is way too late,” he told Bay Weekly. “You're still at rock bottom. We have a terrible situation. Next year the diseases may return.”
Thus Harrison and Linton are anomalies in today's oyster market. Metompkin Bay Oyster Company in Crisfield runs truer to form. The family business — owned by I.T. ‘Ira' Todd, and sons Casey and Mike Todd — has shucked and packed Maryland oysters for 55 years. They still shuck roughly 30,000 bushels a year. But Metompkins now gets most of their oysters from the Gulf.
“There are not a lot of Maryland oysters right now; some, but not enough, not even enough to shuck,” says the company's Brenda Thomas. “We sell all the local Chesapeake Bay oysters that we can get. It's pretty sad.
“Good night,” she said, watching the clock count down the native Maryland oyster.
Water quality means a living to Larry Simns. Charter fishing captain and president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, Simns believes only cleaning up the Bay, starting with sewage treatment plants, will restart the clock for the native oyster.
“Until we're willing to do what it takes to clean up the Bay,” he said, his kind has to look past the native oyster to survive. “We need a different oyster to bring back the Bay,” Simns said.
Harrison thinks so, too. “The implementation of the ariakansas is important,” he said, “if for nothing else than the help it can give to clean up the Bay. If we have that, in connection with a natural set, it may help jump-start the native oyster harvest.”
To his way of thinking, a new oyster can't but help the Chesapeake's natural oyster. “Even if eventually the ariakensis is harvested,” he said, “the natural oyster will make more money. They're two separate products, but people will want the natural oyster.”
Sterile ariakensis, a naturalized Asian oyster, is growing in Bay and tributary waters in both Virginia and Maryland. Those studies could lead to its introduction in the Bay, eventually even as a reproducing, reef-building transplant. That oyster has been used to clean up the water in other areas of the country and world, and it seems able to resists the diseases MSX and dermo.
Under instruction from Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources looks to making a decision on introduction this year. Many scientists are urging slower speed and greater caution. Thus the National Academy of Sciences recommends at least five more years of study before it's decided whether the Asian species will help or hurt the Bay.
But for Oertel, as for many in her industry, too much time has already been wasted. “Ariakensis has been in the Bay 14 years and came out of years of testing by the Virginia scientific community. The native and non-native oyster can live side by side,” she said.
Sanctuaries of native oysters are another means to the same end: revival of the bivalve, the Bay and an industry. “I don't care if we ever harvest the oysters” growing in sanctuaries, said Harrison, who explains that they're needed “just to start to clean up the Bay.” Since 2000, Maryland's Oyster Recovery Partnership has planted some 400 million oyster spat at 38 locations, comprising 23 sanctuaries, eight harvest bars and seven managed reserves.
Sweetening the Pot
|photo by Chris Judy
Harris Crab House shucks and serves local oysters, but supplies are not enough. Karen Oertel, one of the family, wants to see non-native ariakensis oysters planted in the Bay.
Some of these cosseted oysters are destined to fatten Maryland's lean 2004 oyster harvest. In the Chester and Choptank rivers, October ended with the first harvest of oysters planted in 2001 in three of those spots.
“The special harvest day was aimed to give a boost to the annual yield for our Maryland watermen,” explained the Oyster Recovery Partnership's Tilly Egge.
Those oysters are as carefully bred as prize beef cattle or hogs. They're the progeny of natural native brood stock selected from cleaned bars to give the oyster the best chance to resist disease. For all the serious science by a boat-load of partners, the goal of oyster recovery is basic: restore the health of the Bay and help the oysters to help fuel the economy of a historic Maryland resource.
In the short term, the 4,000 bushels expected to be harvested from the reserves may be as much as one-quarter of this year's full Maryland harvest, estimated at a lean 15,000 bushels. “For the oystermen, the reserve harvest may be the only break they get,” Judy said.
So on October 30, a dozen or so boats worked the hot spot over Blunts Bar, a carefully tended reconstructed reserve in the Chester River. A handful of boats milled about over Emory Hollow, the other Chester reserve. Each harvester was allowed to catch 10 bushels. Both hand-tongers and divers went after their limit.
A tonger, balanced on the washboard of his workboat Tammy out of Bozman, worked all morning in a continuous bump-and-grind action, first squatting low, then arms pumping side to side. Finally, in a twist-and-shout kind of way, he stepped on a power assist and pulled the lanky, 20-foot, wooden tonging rake to the surface, dripping mud but holding oysters from the tines.
Hand tonging is back-breaking work, and nowadays scuba divers outnumber the tongers. A buoyed flag flying from the Jenny Lynn II signaled that a diver was working the bar below the murky water's surface. Off the bar, he was chipping baskets of 2001–class oysters to be hauled aboard. On deck, a wire basket full of oysters and mussels spewed mud and spat while the family crew culled, separating harvest-size oysters from smaller fellows and empty shell.
The reefs the oysters grew up on was artificially constructed, but nothing was artificial about the four-inch, disease-free oysters. Shucked, they were plump, full and glistening.
A second managed harvest came November 13, with a third planned just before Christmas. Any licensed oysterman who has paid an additional state permit charge can join in the harvest.
On October 30, Maryland Waterman's Association Simns returned to Harris Crab House at Kent Narrows to shuck some of the prized booty, which was destined for several area restaurants — among them Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, McCormick and Schmicks in D.C., and Baltimore and Nick's in Baltimore — to promote local oysters. Simns allowed that sanctuaries and reserves could help the native oyster.
But it wouldn't substitute for cleaning up the Bay.
What's that You're Eating?
Where does your oyster come from?
At Middleton Tavern, chef Arthur Gross is responsible for the restaurant's oyster purchases.
“We don't get many from Maryland now. Most of ours come from Mississippi and Texas,” he said. “They're really nice and closest to our local oyster. On an average weekend, we'll use 15 bushels in the shell that we shuck here. But for the oyster shooters, we'll use already shucked ‘standards,' from the Gulf.”
Gulf oysters are Eastern oysters, the Crassostrea virginica that we're used to and which were once so bountiful in the Chesapeake region.
At Happy Harbor in Deale, Barbara Sturgell gets her oysters “right out of the Bay.” Four bushels a week of oysters in the shell are bought from Don Sheckells of Shady Side, who supplements what he can catch in the Bay with oysters he farms in the West River. Another eight gallons, from a supplier in Virginia, are harvested from the southern reaches of the Bay.
No longer are we that ‘great shellfish bay' the Algonquin Indians called Chesepioc. Until we find the will and the way to clean up the Bay — and that may cost $28 billion, according to the latest scientific estimate — we'll continue to import our namesake product.
As we whet our oyster appetite on shooters, that's a sobering thought.
A Good Shucker is Hard to Find
|photo by Sandra Martin
Woody King, 91, of St. Michaels, has shucked at Harrison's since the oyster house opened in 1965.
When you're talking oysters, you could get to thinking of the old song about foot bones and knee bones and thighbones. Oysters, too, are connected. They support ecosystems underwater, on the water and on land.
Thus before you can eat an oyster, somebody's got to shuck it. That's true whether oysters are served raw on the half-shell or processed for sale to restaurants, food processors, groceries or you and me.
Eight men and six women competed in this year's National Oyster shucking contest at St. Mary's County Oyster Festival in Leonardtown. Some shuckers came from other states, including Florida and Washington. Like oysters, Maryland shuckers are fewer nowadays. Most can't make a living shucking.
At this year's competition, Samuel Fisher was the exception. The agile Fisher, of Ocean City, has practiced his craft for 30 years, 20 of them at the Crisfield oyster shucking house Metompkin Bay Oyster Company. He moonlights at two Ocean City restaurants, The Embers and The Bonfire.
There are not many like him, says Bud Harrison of Harrison's Chesapeake House. Steeped four generations in water ways, Harrison laments that shucking is a dying art.
“Not a lot of young people are learning to shuck,” he says. “I have eight shuckers who have worked for us more than 25 years.”
The youngest is Charmaine Lake, 36, of Hurlock, who's been shucking since she was 12, Both her mother and father were shuckers, Harrison says. The oldest is Woodland ‘Woody' King, 91, of St. Michaels. “He's shucked for us ever since my dad opened the oyster house in 1965,” Harrison says. At Harrison's Friday night oyster buffet, you can see Woody shuck those small, salty, round oysters from Tangier Sound.
Harvey Linton employs 11 shuckers, all older people.
Those good people are dying off,” he says, so when the going gets tough, he, three of his four sons, his wife and his daughter will shuck. “It's a family business,” he explains.
At Metompkin Oyster Company, Brenda Thomas counts “maybe 30 shuckers. “The younger person is not learning and the older ones are dying off,” she says. “It's a dying skill.”
When no locals can do the job, Metompkin imports workers from Mexico on H2B federal work visas.
The training grounds for shuckers are also in decline. Only about six packing houses remain in Maryland, according to seafood marketer Noreen Eberley, of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. That's down from two dozen in the 1980s and about 100 in the 1890s.
|How to Shuck Like a Pro
Some say shucking is more finesse than brawn. Watching an expert shucker, you'll know why it's a dying art. If you enjoy the tangy taste of a raw oyster, here's how to begin with finesse.
Shuckers wear heavy rubber gloves for good reason, and so should you. Hold the oyster cupped inside the gloved palm of one hand and your oyster knife in the other. Oysters have sharp, brittle ridges, and oyster knives, though rounded at the tip, are thin and lethal. Handle with care; no death grip needed.
Run the knife around the lip of the oyster. Insert the knife, as my dad used to say, “at about 4 o'clock.” With a twist of the knife, pry the top and bottom shell apart, being careful not to spill the precious liquor. Then slide the knife below the oyster to cut the muscle free from the shell.
According to Harrison, “a real oyster shucker can cut into the bivalve, slip the knife under the shell and cut the heart away from the bottom portion, which relaxes the muscle, so both the top and bottom shell will separate — all this without tearing the meat.”
Harrison says he is glad to demonstrate this dying art and willing to arrange small tours, which will surely whet the appetite for dinner at his family's Chesapeake House.