’Tis the Season …

Chesapeake Bay oysters, at the peak of their season, contribute to our seasonal well-being by starring in many of our favorite traditional recipes: oyster dressing; its succulent who-needs-the-bird cousin, oysters au gratin; oysters on the half shell; oysters Rockefeller. 

To enjoy favorite dishes new and old, we need oysters. Of course we now know that oysters have even more important work to do than feeding us contentment. So important, that Maryland and Virginia have made restoring the native oyster one of the mainstays of their current efforts to restore the Bay.

“The future looks bright for oyster restoration in the Bay,” said Dr. Michael Rubino, NOAA’s Aquaculture Program Manager, noting that President Barack Obama’s executive order for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed “calls for federal and state partners to restore 20 Bay tributaries by 2025 with native oyster habitat and populations.”

That resolve means we won’t be substituting imported Ariakensis oysters for our native Virginica in our holiday recipes any time soon — maybe ever. 

If the plan works. 

So far, it’s still a plan in progress. Early progress. 2010 is the rollout year for Maryland’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, and the road has been a bit rocky.

The oystermen — on whom satisfying our oyster appetites depend — are dissatisfied. The plan makes them change their habits and takes many high-yielding beds out of production and into preservation. Once they’ve made their catch — which conditions of weather and work have never made an easy job — they’re being offered prices so low that many Eastern Shore oystermen have gone on strike.

For eating and environment, oyster hatcheries have a big role to play in restoration. As in so many fisheries, natural fertility is no longer enough to sustain Bay oysters. Maryland’s state hatchery at Cambridge is expanding to meet the increasing demand of a committed native oyster restoration plan. At speed, it will produce baby oysters in the billions rather than the millions. 

Ever more of these Bay oysters will spend their first year in the care of ever more people who are taking personal responsibility for restoring Bay oysters. Joining the list of Marylanders growing oysters in Bay area waters are a contingent from the Asbury Retirement Community at Solomons. Their average age is about 75, reports Sue Hu, who, with husband Dick Hu, is a founder of the Asbury effort. 

Working with the Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society, the Asbury oyster gardeners have successfully raised their first crop and planted them on a new reef on the retirement community’s Patuxent Riverfront.

Multiplying that effort, Maryland’s Oyster Recovery Partnership planted more than 450 million baby oysters on 316 Bay acres last year.

Oysters are such gregarious creatures that they build their homes right on top of one another’s. So restoring Chesapeake oysters means reclaiming empty shell from which earlier generations of oysters were harvested.

Sixty thousand bushels of old shell supported 2010’s oyster planting. Four thousand of those bushels — filled with two million shells — were collected from some 50 regional businesses that shell and sell oysters, from seafood packers to high-end restaurants — by the Oyster Shell Recycling Alliance. Bay Weekly introduced you to that effort in April.

Most of the oysters produced through these efforts will never reach your table. They’re destined for sanctuaries, where their job will be cleaning up Bay waters. If they can overcome adversity to do that job, we’ll have oysters enough for the Bay and our tables in seasons to come.