An industry of yore rebounds on the Chesapeake Bay.

 

Looking out over our backyard on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there is a quiet creek where the past, present, and future of the Chesapeake Bay converge. By the first of November, most local watermen have traded their crabbing pots for a single iron oyster dredge, and their deadrise workboats will now ply the brackish waters in search of an iconic keystone species: the Crassotrea virginica, aka the Eastern oyster.

 

This small but mighty bivalve has been the topic of great discussion here for centuries—a vital food source for early Native American communities and later European colonists, a natural filter feeder able to clean upwards of 50 gallons of the estuary each day, an economic engine that once turned the Chesapeake into the oyster capitol of America—their populations once so plentiful they were deemed navigational hazards for ships.

“The largest genuine Maryland oyster—the veritable bivalve of the Chesapeake, still to be had at oyster roasts down the river and at street stands along the wharves—is as large as your open hand,” wrote The Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken in 1913. “A magnificent, matchless reptile! Hard to swallow? Dangerous? Perhaps to the novice, the dastard. But to the veteran of the raw bar, the man of trained and lusty esophagus, a thing of prolonged and kaleidoscopic flavors, a slow slipping saturnalia, a delirium of joy!”

Today, we cook with them often, like a recent thousand roasted over a live fire at our beloved Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. But those incredible creatures are now a shadow of what they used to be, with their historic reefs overharvested, then ravaged by deadly disease, then hammered by Hurricane Agnes, leaving the Chesapeake oyster less than one percent of its historic peak. An intimidating, if not impossible deficit, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at all the work underway just off our dock down Harris Creek.

To the north lies Harris Creek Oyster Co., one of a growing number of aquaculture operations entering the booming market of farm-to-table oysters. To the south sits the Harris Creek Sanctuary, touted as the world’s largest oyster restoration project at more than 300 acres of newly planted and protected reef. And just across the water is Wittman Wharf, one of the many former seafood packing plants that once speckled these tidal shorelines, now a bustling seafood market whose soft-shell crabs and rockfish filets grace our pans almost weekly.

In many ways, Wittman Wharf is the crossroads of the Chesapeake oyster—a critical juncture of tradition and innovation that might suggest a possible way forward for this historic seafood industry. The cinder-block building has been revived by Nick Hargrove, who grew up in this whistle-stop community and started diving for wild oysters after high school, literally donning a scuba suit and swimming to the bay bottom to harvest those craggly mollusks by hand. 

Nick Hargrove, of Wild Diver Oysters, donning his equipment to hand-harvest oysters.

“This fishery is our friends, our family, our neighbors,” he says. “We’ve seen it at its lows, and then this year, the guys are catching their daily bushel limit within the first two hours. It looks like we’re going to have a good season. There are oysters everywhere.”

Not only does Hargrove work with some 20 multi-generational watermen to purchase every wild oyster they can harvest, hauling in as many as 250 bushels a day during the height of the season, but he has also reopened the packing facility, with hundreds of jars of freshly shucked oysters flying out the door this time of year, bound for fritters and stuffings. Working with the state and nonprofits, he also repurposes those discarded shells to help replant juvenile oysters on sanctuaries like the one located downstream. He even holds a few aquaculture leases. 

“It’s a balance,” says Hargrove. “We all have to do our part and take care of this watershed in our own ways. Every little bit helps, really. And it feeds a lot of mouths along the way.”

Just across the peninsula from Wittman, the Orchard Point Oyster Co. entered the industry for a similar reason, with 20 acres of aquaculture leases located on either side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, with some even speckled along the Chester River’s Fryingpan Cove—which we just love—likely named for its skillet-like shape.

Fryingpan Cove: One of Orchard Point Oyster Company's oyster leases on the Eastern Shore.

A former financial analyst, founder Scott Budden returned to his hometown in 2015 after the state removed restrictions on oyster farming, giving way to a nascent industry that has the potential to abate the changes he’d begun to notice on his native tributary. 

“It hit home, quite literally,” says Budden, noting that oysters not only reduce pollutants and sedimentation in the water, but also sequester carbon in their shells and create protective buffers against climate change. “My job was paying the bills but didn’t have a lot of meaning; eventually I asked myself, what was the biggest thing that l could do to personally help the bay?”

Like decades of traditional oystermen before them, Orchard Point’s work is still done by hand, with little more modern technology than a hydraulic rope winder and an outboard boat motor. But in other ways, Budden is evolving his industry, in part through the use of the increasingly popular triploid oyster. 

Like seedless watermelon, these oysters, like many of those you eat in restaurants, are bred to be virtually sterile, meaning they don’t waste their energy on a summer spawn, thus eliminating the old adage of “R months.” Purchased as larvae from hatcheries and raised in the open water, they take some pressure off the wild populations while also creating a year-round market. 

Scott Budden, founder of Orchard Point Oyster Company.

“What we do is different, but we’re still out there, nearly 300 days a year,” says Budden. “My family didn’t work the water, but growing up here, there’s a sense of solidarity. We want to see the industry survive, and also thrive. It’s pretty cool to think about what it could turn into. 

Similar to Hargrove’s efforts, just a stone’s throw from Orchard Point’s farm, neighboring watermen recently planted some 14 million juvenile oysters back into local waters, hoping to bolster the economic and ecological sustainability of that single river. Bigger still, it might mark a sea change.

“At one time, America ate a lot of Chesapeake oysters, and who’s to say that we couldn’t get to that point again?” says Budden, who sold over 16,000 the week of Thanksgiving. “If we do our jobs, we’re going to keep putting more in the water, and that’s a win-win for everyone. It provides jobs. It supports the supply chain. It gets that dockside value up, and shows what the bay can do . . . The waters have changed, but they still produce a damn good oyster.”

We know we’ll be having our fill of them—raw, roasted, cast-iron fried, and pied—this week.

We’re eternally thankful for the ones that hit our plates, and pans.

November 23, 2021 — Dennis Powell